Speaking of the refugees

January 23, 2014
Sarah Benton

A brief agency report on UNRWA’s statement about the Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk is followed by three articles from Al Monitor on different aspects of the impact of Palestinian refugees in the countries bordering Israel.

Palestinian boys take part in a rally to show solidarity with Palestinian refugees in Syria’s main refugee camp Yarmouk in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. The Arabic words on the bread read, ” I am hungry”. There have been frequent rallies in Gaza in support of the Yarmouk refugees in the last month in all of which khubz (bread) is the most popular symbol. Photo by Ibraheem Abu Mustafa /Reuters photo

UN warns on Syria’s Yarmouk camp, as aid convoy ‘blocked’

By AFP / Jordan Times
January 09, 2014

BEIRUT — The UN agency for Palestinian refugees warned Thursday of “extreme human suffering” in Syria’s Yarmouk camp, with state media saying “terrorists” had blocked aid from entering.

Since September, at least 15 people have died from hunger in the camp, which came under tight regime siege around a year ago after rebels took control of the area.

UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said food shortages continue and that the absence of medical care had led to women dying in childbirth.

“The profound civilian suffering in Yarmouk deepens, with reports of widespread malnutrition and the absence of medical care, including for those who have severe conflict-related injuries and… women in childbirth, with fatal consequences for some women,” he said.

“Residents, including infants and children, have been subsisting for long periods on diets of such things as stale vegetables, animal feed and cooking spices dissolved in water.”

He said residents –– both Palestinian and Syrian –– were experiencing “extreme human suffering in primitively harsh conditions”, and urged humanitarian access to the camp.

“Syrian authorities and other parties must allow and facilitate safe and open humanitarian access,” he said.

But state television said a convoy carrying aid for the estimated 20,000 residents trapped in the camp had been blocked from entering by “terrorist gangs”.

“Terrorist gangs in the Yarmouk camp prevented the entry of an aid convoy carrying some 5,000 food parcels for those trapped in the camp,” it said.

“The gangs opened heavy fire to prevent them from entering,” it added.

Yarmouk was once home to some 170,000 people but tens of thousands have fled since fighting began in the camp.

Syria is officially home to nearly 500,000 Palestinian refugees, around half of whom have been displaced by the conflict that broke out in March 2011, becoming refugees for a second time.

A Palestinian refugee walks past a large mural in Shouneh, west of Amman, showing a pre-partition Palestine, May 13, 2011. Photo by Muhammad Hamed / Reuters.

Jordan eager to represent Jordanian-Palestinian refugees

By Daoud Kuttab, Al Monitor / Palestine Pulse
January 22, 2014

Up until the convening of the Arab League summit in the Moroccan capital, Rabat, in October 1974, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was the official representative of Palestinians. After all, Jordan was home to most Palestinians before 1967, and the West Bank (including east Jerusalem) was part of the kingdom from 1952-1967. Palestinians living on both sides of the Jordan River were — and many still are — Jordanian citizens.

During the summit in Rabat, the Arab League recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization as the “sole and legitimate” representative of the Palestinian people everywhere. For the most part that has been accepted. But Jordan continues to host the single-largest group of Palestinian refugees: 42% of all registered Palestinian refugees live in Jordan and have full Jordanian citizenship.

It is this fact that has caused Jordan to try to wiggle its way back to some sort of representation. Jordanian governmental and parliamentary officials have recently stepped up their rhetoric about the need for Jordan to play some kind of role in representing those refugees, who are also their citizens. The potential of the success of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s mission has heightened interest by Jordan.

Jordan’s Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour opened up this new line of discussion by stating Jordan’s official policy on Palestinian refugees: “Every Palestinian refugee [who came] to Jordan between 1946 and 1949 has the right of return and compensation.” Ensour also said all refugees who have become citizens should exercise their personal rights to return and receive compensation. Jordan also hosts nearly half a million refugees from the Gaza Strip who have not been granted citizenship. Their fate is also of extreme importance to Jordanians in terms of the country’s demographic balance; many conservative Jordanians fear that the country’s original citizens might become a minority in their own country. This means that Jordan thinks it has a say in at least three different categories of Palestinians: those who entered Jordan before the 1949 armistice agreement, those who became refugees in 1948 and 1967 and those from the Gaza Strip who have made Jordan their refuge but have never received citizenship because the Gaza Strip was never part of Jordan.

But while Ensour might have danced around the issue of representation of Palestinians who have become Jordanian citizens, parliament Speaker Atef Tarawneh was much more explicit.

Tarawneh was quoted by a parliamentary bloc he met with recently as saying that “40% of Palestinian refugees in the kingdom have Jordanian citizenship and the government must assist them in exercising the right of return and receiving compensation.”

It is clear that the Jordanians, who host more than 2 million Palestinian refugees, feel that they must have a much bigger role in any negotiations that will permanently settle their fate. Jordan’s Foreign Minister Naser Judeh, who chaired the UN Security Council session this week, made his country’s position quite clear. “Most of the refugees on our territory are Jordanian citizens in addition to their status as refugees, and it lies at the heart of our responsibilities to protect and restore their legitimate rights recognized by the international terms of reference pertaining to the peace process. As a host country, we, in turn, have rights for the burdens we have shouldered,” Judeh said.

It is the last part of Judeh’s statement that is of utmost interest to Jordan. Hosting so many Palestinian refugees for so long has costs, and Jordan wants to make sure that as a country it is compensated for this daunting multi-decade effort.

Jordanians have been talking about numbers in the billions of dollars as the amount of compensation that the kingdom has a right to demand. Such a payment would most likely be made on condition that Jordan agrees to permanently host most of the Palestinian refugees now living in the country and carrying a Jordanian passport. The actual amount that Jordan would seek as compensation for hosting Palestinian refugees — and how it is calculated — is a closely guarded state secret.

International experts have estimated that the total cost of compensating Palestinian refugees could reach $12 billion, while Palestinians have estimated anywhere from $20 billion to $200 billion. It is not clear what percentage of this compensation would be granted to host countries such as Jordan. Of course the discussion in Jordan is rarely on figures but on the general issue of the final status of the refugees and protecting their rights.

There is no doubt that the heightened official and public interest for Jordan to be involved more directly in the peace talks stems from a feeling that we are approaching some crucial decision-making time. Jordanians want to have a strong say in how issues such as the status of Palestinian refugees in Jordan is finally settled and ensure that the kingdom is properly and fairly compensated for its decades-old effort to host the largest number of Palestinian refugees.

Rally for Yarmouk refugees in Gaza on January 10, 2014. Photo by Moemen Faiz/NurPhoto / Corbis

Gaza expresses solidarity with Syria’s Yarmouk camp

By Rasha Abou Jalal, trans. Kamal Fayad, Al Monitor /Palestine Pulse
January 22, 2014

GAZA CITY, Gaza — A multitude of slogans and symbols have emerged in the Gaza Strip to express support for the Palestinian refugees trapped in the Yarmouk camp in Syria. These symbols include empty pots and loaves of bread, along with the lighting of candles and carrying of coffins, to show solidarity with camp residents, who are suffering from the harshest of humanitarian crises.

Yarmouk is home to the largest concentration of Palestinian refugees in Syria. Established in 1957 over an area of 2.1 square km (1.3 miles), Yarmouk houses 144,000 registered refugees, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.

Rami Abdo, the director of the Euro-Mediterranean Observer for Human Rights, told Al-Monitor that nearly 1,900 Palestinian refugees have died in Syria since the onset of the current conflict, among them 790 in Yarmouk alone. Meanwhile, press reports from the camp indicate that 53 Palestinians have died of hunger since the warring factions imposed a siege on it in July 2013.

Dozens of solidarity vigils have been organized in the Gaza Strip this month in support of Yarmouk. They were distinguished by the broad participation of children, who carried signs that read, “I am with them” and “From the children of Gaza to the children of Yarmouk” as well as “From house to house in support of the Yarmouk camp.”

Areej, a young Gazan girl who had “I am hungry” painted on her forehead, took part in a solidarity vigil organized by the I Am With Them youth initiative in front of the International Red Cross headquarters on Jan. 4. She told Al-Monitor’s correspondent, “I came today to share the suffering of my young brothers and sisters in the Yarmouk camp and ask that the siege on them be lifted, as it is unjust and cruel.”

Close to Areej, a group of children with other slogans painted on their foreheads, among them “Gaza is with you” and “Save the camp,” carried a symbolic coffin on which were inscribed the names of children who have died of hunger in Yarmouk.

In Abdo’s opinion, Palestinian solidarity with the camp came late. He noted, “Gaza was the first to express solidarity, maybe because it endured similar living conditions. But to this date, one cannot claim that the camp has become a compelling public opinion issue among the Palestinian populace.”

Yarmouk was for several weeks a hot topic for activists on Facebook and Twitter, where it was given attention through the publishing of photographs, video clips and slogans reflecting the size of the tragedy suffered by the Palestinians there.

Youth activist Adham Abu Silmiyeh explained that the Gaza Strip’s solidarity with inhabitants of Yarmouk was due to the brotherly ties that exist between Palestinians, as well as their common national allegiance.

“We want to convey a message,” Abu Silmiyeh told Al-Monitor, “that Palestinians have nothing to do with the events taking place in Syria and that what concerns us is that the camps be kept out of the ongoing conflict.”

Other young people took it upon themselves to produce documentary films that reflect the suffering of the camp’s inhabitants and demand that the siege on them be lifted. Among the films circulating on social networking sites is one entitled “Save Yarmouk Camp,” developed and produced by Abdel Aziz Naaman, and subsequently translated into English so that it reaches the widest possible audience around the world.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Naaman explained that the film’s intent was to demonstrate the extent of people’s suffering in Yarmouk, convey a message to the world demanding that everyone contribute to lifting the siege on the camp and allow the entry of adequate aid.

“We in Gaza have suffered a lot as a result of the Israeli siege,” he said. “That is why I decided to help and contribute through this video clip — so that their cries and agony are heard by all in the world.”

Comic strips addressing the Yarmouk crisis have spread through newspapers and news sites in Gaza. Among the most prominent creators of these cartoons is Alaa Allagta, who usually gives the Palestinian refugee issue priority over other Palestinian issues.

In a conversation with Al-Monitor, Allagta said, “The main motivation that compelled me to draw about the Yarmouk camp was a nationalist one, which emanated from my belief in the Palestinian cause, for these hungry martyrs were part of a refugee framework engendered by the Palestinian cause. Perhaps this would restore to our psyche the Palestinian right of return.”

He added that the Gaza Strip’s solidarity with the Yarmouk camp was due to many factors, most important among them the commonality of the siege imposed on both places. Allagta wondered, “Will the world remain a spectator to the siege imposed on the camp, as it remained silent vis-à-vis the siege on Gaza?”

On Jan. 11, 50 Palestinian radio stations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip launched Media Day of Solidarity with the Yarmouk Camp, during which press reports were read about the situation of the Palestinian there and calls were issued for donations to help them.

Preachers conducting Friday prayers on Jan. 10 asked worshippers for donations to be sent to the camp through aid convoys attempting to reach its inhabitants.

Some people are choosing to send donations personally through banks to brokers, who then transfer them to stricken families in the camp. This is what Fathi Sabah, the director of the Palestinian Institute for Communication and Development in Gaza, did.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Sabah said, “As a Palestinian refugee, I donated to another Palestinian refugee who faces death on a daily basis, unable to find anything to eat or drink in the Yarmouk camp. Had I not been able to donate money, I would have donated blood, because those are our brothers and are Palestinians, just like us.”

Sabah called on all able Palestinians to donate to the camp’s inhabitants. He also asked them to express their solidarity by conveying their suffering to the world by any means and stressed the need to break the international silence around the plight of the camp’s population.

Abdo agreed, and confirmed that the issue of the Yarmouk refugee camp was being met with overwhelming international silence. He added, “As an example, the whole of Europe is currently hosting less that 0.5% of the people displaced from Syria, while leaving that burden to neighbouring countries that seriously violate the refugees’ human rights.”

This is UNRWA’s Al-Jalazoun camp near Ramallah where there have been recent protests about living conditions. Photo from MEMO

Syria’s Palestinians: Refugees Once Again

By Camille Tawil, trans. Rani Geha, Al Monitor / Palestine Pulse
October 25, 2013

Filippo Grandi, the commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), discussed the “tragic” situation of the Palestinian refugees in Syria, saying, “Half of them have fled from camps in Syria after [those camps] turned into ‘battlefields’ for government forces and the opposition.”

Grandi, whom Al-Hayat interviewed in London, revealed that UNRWA has sent a number of its Gaza employees who are “emergency experts,” as a result of the repeated wars there, to train UNRWA staff in Syria, because the latter have never lived in battle conditions.

Grandi said, “The Palestinians in Syria lived through a long period of stability. They have been welcomed since 1949. UNRWA worked well. But when the war broke out, we have become worried, like any other party. At the beginning [of the war], nothing happened in the Palestinian refugee camps, which are spread over 12 locations. However, near the end of 2012, the conflict started reaching these sites more and more. We now estimate that seven or eight [camps] (out of the 12 camps) have become battlefields: the opposition at the center of [the camps] and government forces surrounding them. Most people there are trying to flee.

“Since we cannot access these sites because of the fighting, we don’t know the exact number of Palestinians who left their homes. But we simply estimate — based on our experience and knowledge of the land — that half the population has left. Since the number of Palestinians registered in Syria is 540,000, it means that half of them — 270,000 — have been displaced from their homes. Of these, about 70,000 left Syria entirely to become refugees for the second time after they have been living as refugees in Syria. Most of those — about 50,000 — went to Lebanon, a country that is already not easy on the Palestinians.”

Grandi said that despite the war in Syria, UNRWA is still “continuing its effort to operate schools (118) and clinics (23), where work has become more difficult. Work in Syria as a whole has become more dangerous because of the lack of security.” He said that UNRWA’s schools and clinics in the Syrian refugee camps “are still working but at half capacity. This is done sometimes by moving from one place to another. We get, for example, permission from the local administration to use a certain location, to which we move a school or a clinic in the hope that the new location will be more secure than the one before. For example, our operations director in Syria must decide every day whether to keep the school open or close it because of the fighting around it. It’s a big responsibility. What if a shell fell on a school and killed children?

Map showing the 12 refugee camps in Syria. It is the cluster around Damascus in the south, which includes Yarmouk, which have become unable to provide safety and sustenance for the refugees.

“Unfortunately, we are accustomed to such things in Gaza, but in Syria, we have never had such problems. Our staff in Syria is not used to wars. Did you know that we had to send some of our Gaza Palestinian employees who are emergency experts to Syria to teach the UNRWA staff there how to act in emergency situations? In Gaza, UNRWA has learned to work under emergency situations over the years — Israeli attacks and incursions, intifada events, internal Palestinian fighting — but that never happened in Syria. So we have sent our Gaza experts to teach UNRWA [in Syria] how to design contingency plans. This is pathetic.”

He pointed out that the war in Syria has caused the second largest Palestinian displacement since the 1967 War and the Gulf War, when Palestinians fled Kuwait. He said, “The Palestinians have nothing to do with the current war in Syria, but it is affecting them,” pointing out that some of them are risking death trying to flee Syria, as happened recently with the refugee boat in the Mediterranean. He said he was distressed to see the Palestinians in that situation as he approaches the end of his term at the head of UNRWA. He will be leaving office next year after working at the agency for eight years.

Regarding UNRWA’s relationship with Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip, Grandi said, “Officially, there is no relationship with Hamas because the United Nations is a member of the Quartet, which has put conditions on Hamas before resuming the dialogue with them, and the Quartet sees that the movement did not respond to its terms. Therefore, the United Nations doesn’t have a political dialogue with Hamas. But our work in Gaza is very big — we have 12,000 employees and more than 200,000 children in Gaza alone studying in our schools — and this means that there must be contacts with regard to security and public health and all other matters relating to the management of the Palestinian territories. And since [Hamas] has de facto authority on the ground, we have routine daily contacts with them. But we don’t talk politics.”

UNRWA in Gaza manages two-thirds of the public services there. It oversees the teaching of 200,000 children in the Gaza Strip alone out of 500,000 who go to school in the Middle East — the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

He explained that UNRWA’s basic programs — education and health — were not affected by the drop in funding, but other “special” programs have seen their funding sometimes increase or decrease.

Gaza’s population is between 1.6 million to 1.7 million. About 1.1 million of them are considered refugees (they fled to the Gaza Strip from Palestinian areas occupied by Israel). “So we have a huge operation in the sector,” he said, noting that UNRWA spends nearly a half-billion dollars annually in the Gaza Strip alone.

He acknowledged that the tunnels that the Egyptians are destroying are “illegal and no one supports them. But during the siege, [those tunnels] were the only way to bring fuel and other goods. If countries decide to prevent illegal materials [from going to Gaza,] then that’s their right and no one is saying otherwise. But the people in Gaza must be offered alternatives. This matter depends on the Israeli blockade. It is the Israelis’ responsibility to allow traded [goods] to enter and leave Gaza. If the Egyptians close the tunnels, this should be accompanied by opening legitimate crossings. Gaza is like the body: If it doesn’t breathe, it will suffocate. If the nose is closed, the mouth must open, or it cannot breathe.”

He added, “You cannot say now that we must stop supporting the Palestinians because their cause has become old. Now is the time to offer help. Please help UNRWA. We are the only tool that provides assistance to these refugees. We have a significant financial problem: 700 schools and 130 clinics cost us $650 million annually. Now, the year is about to end and we are $40 million short. If I don’t get that before the end of the year, how will I pay for the teachers, doctors, paramedics and social workers? This appeal is directed to the entire world, but especially to the Arab countries in the Gulf.”

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