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Sunday, January 19, 2014

How Not to Be in Solidarity with Palestinians Refugees in Yarmouk

Old man starving in Yarmouk
I've been reporting on the plight of Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk since July and August of 2012 and its good to see these concerns being written about in the main stream media and voiced by more people in the peace and justice movement, but along with this wakening to the humanitarian disaster that is unfolding in Yarmouk is a narrative that seeks to sow confusion as to the Assad regime's responsibility for the siege.

I was glad to hear Amy Goodman finally acknowledge the siege on Democracy Now in October 2013:

In a lesser-told side of Syria’s civil war, Muslim clerics have reportedly issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, allowing people to eat dogs, cats and donkeys as residents of rebel-held South Damascus face starvation conditions. The Financial Times reports areas, including parts of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, have faced an almost total blockade of supplies since the summer, leaving some residents to subsist on leaves, animal feed and the contents of garbage bins. Signs on pro-government checkpoints read "hunger or kneel."
That report, even though it was brief and used the regime viewpoint that areas freed of government control, like the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, are "rebel held," at least was clear on who was responsible for people being forced to eat cats, dogs and donkeys; it was a pro-government blockade enforcing a policy of "hunger or kneel." In spite of this horrific suffering, Democracy Now didn't have occasion to mention the siege of Yarmouk again until the last day of 2013 and they had become quite murky as to who was responsible for the siege:
The United Nations is urgently appealing for access to a Palestinian area of Damascus where people are dying from hunger. A U.N. official says some 20,000 Palestinians are trapped inside the Yarmouk district of Damascus amid fighting between the regime and rebels. Since the last delivery of U.N. aid in September, 15 people have died there from malnutrition, including five this past weekend.
Is it also possible that there are Palestinians inside Yarmouk that are fighting to keep the regime out? Where would they fit in this formulation? When these two questions are considered, I think the bankruptcy of the "20,000 Palestinians are trapped inside the Yarmouk district of Damascus amid fighting between the regime and rebels" formulation is revealed. Who provides support and backup for the anti-regime fighters in Yarmouk such that they have been able to hold the regime forces at bay for over a year?

Funeral for martyr who perished from hunger in Yarmouk | 12 Jan 2014

While it is clear to any long time observer of this struggle, that the Palestinians of Yarmouk long ago threw their lot in with the Syrian revolution, and went against the regime; we now see a new interpretation of events being promoted by pro-Assad Iranian mouthpieces like PressTV and echoed by various US "anti-imperialists" in which the poor Palestinians are victims of Western-backed foreign jihadists which have turned the camp into a battlefield, and so the siege of Yarmonk is really being carried out jointly by both the regime and its opposition and the regime is "forced" to attack and starve everyone to get at the "rebels." Learn to expect this thesis whenever people rebel. This piece, published a few days ago in the Palestine Chronicle is a powerful rebuttal to its application to Yarmouk:

How Not to Be in Solidarity with Palestinian Refugees in Yarmouk

By Omar Shaban
17 January 2014

Statements of “solidarity” with Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk are emerging one after the other. Albeit very late as it took some groups 200 days to assemble the courage to announce to the world that they are aware of the crisis that has befell the camp.

However, what is characteristic and outrageous in these statements is the evident lack of any willingness to hold the Assad regime accountable for this inhumane siege and premeditated starvation of the refugees. For example, the US Palestinian Community Network issued a statement that “expresses great concern regarding the escalating crisis.” Logically, an expression of “great concern” must be accompanied with an examination into why does one “express concern” about a ‘thing’ or an ‘event.’ Something somewhere must have happened to trigger an emotional and intellectual exercise of concern, and this something must be elucidated very clearly.

In the case of the Yarmouk refugee camp, perhaps the reason for this concern must be a feeling that the communities in both North America and the Yarmouk refugee camp (and any other refugee camp for that matter) must share a some sort common camaraderie, a brotherhood, a common history, a collective memory, a shared suffering, and a feeling of belonging to a dispossessed homeland. If this is true, then it follows that it is not enough to simply “express concern” or “solidarity” or issue a statement of a certain political significance. Instead, these expressors of concern must also take into consideration, with absolutely no equivocation or prevarication, the narrative provided to them by Palestinian activists in the camp (and this narrative is readily available thanks to the internet, social media sites, etc), and find an appropriate location for it in their “expression of concern.”

Evidently, this is not the case in the statement issued by USPCN. The few words that followed their “expression of concern” speak of an “escalating crisis” without paying an attention (intentionally or unintentionally) to the root causes of this crisis – and let me break it to you: it is not Israel.

There is no doubt that the Yarmoukian Palestinians are in Syria because of a historic injustice imposed upon them by a settler-colonial enemy that does not spare any effort to exacerbate their suffering and prolong their exile. However, this indisputable historic occurrence should not blind us from the fact that independent of what Israel has planned to increase Palestinian suffering, the party responsible for the current crisis (and here I must reiterate my emphasis on the word ‘current’) is the brutal and inhuman Syrian regime and its leader Bashar El-Assad.

The Syrian revolution is not an international conspiracy planned and constructed behind closed offices in Tel Aviv and Washington, it is an honorable revolution of a people who suffered from unbearable brutalities exacted upon it by a regime designed specifically to ensure unconditional subservience and zero dissent. This revolution, despite normal and regrettable setbacks that characterize any revolution, should not be castigated as yet another attempt by international conspirators intending to further destabilize the oil rich Arab World. And this revolution should not be used by the Palestinian left to score political points at the expense of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who, for the past sixty years, provided their brothers and sisters with home and shelter.

Assad and his regime must be held responsible for everything that is happening to the every single person who currently resides in Syria. It must be held responsible for the crisis because it is the direct result of its dictatorial policies in the region. It must be held responsible for its inaction in the face of demands for political and economic reforms. In this particular historical event, it is not Israel that is causing the suffering of the Palestinians and Syrians, it is the Syrian regime. Armed groups would not be able to smuggle weapons and fighters through Syria’s porous borders if the regime were competent in anything other than the murder of its own people.

This is not meant to be an attack on USPCN. The statement issued by the said group did, however, provide me with a reason to write. Similar statement that disregard the root causes of the Syrian conflicts are readily available on the internet.

The real motivation for writing this article is to demonstrate that “solidarity” with the refugees in Yarmouk, and similar calls for “return and liberation” mean absolutely nothing without expressly condemning the Syrian regime for its atrocious acts, and demand, alongside their brothers and sisters in Syria, for its removal from power.

- Omar Chaaban is a Palestinian activist based in Vancouver, BC. He holds a BA in International Relations from the University of British Columbia and focuses on Syria and Palestine. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Visit his blog: http://omar-chaaban.blogspot.ca, and follow him on: @al3isawy.

Palestinian refugees protest against the Assad regime in Yarmouk Camp | 12 June 2013

A History Lesson in Resistance

Seventy-One years ago yesterday, on 18 January 1943, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising began when the newly formed ZOB [Jewish Fighting Group] attacked German troops queuing up people to be sent to the extermination camps. That had never happened before. Three days later, the Nazi's shot a thousand people in retaliation but the armed resistance continued and the deportations were halted for a while. Probably there were those who blamed the ZOB and not the Nazi's for the thousand shot and blamed all the slaughter on fighting between the rebels and the regime.

Also Wikipedia tells us:
Two resistance organizations, the ŻZW and ŻOB, took control of the Ghetto. They built dozens of fighting posts and executed a number of Nazi collaborators, including Jewish Police officers, members of the fake (German-sponsored and controlled) resistance organization Żagiew [shades of the ISIS? - clayclai], as well as Gestapo and Abwehr agents (such as Judenrat member Dr Alfred Nossig, executed on 22 February 1943). The ŻOB established a prison to hold and execute traitors and collaborators.
Notify Amnesty International, all these people were held and executed by the rebels without proper trial! So you see, even in the case of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis, we can use that old standby "both sides committed war crimes", "both sides did bad things", to avoid taking sides even in the holocaust against the Jews.

There has also been a lot of smoke blown with regards to the most recent attempt to break the siege with a UN aid convoy. From the Electronic Intifada:
Amid gunfire, relief convoy turns back from Syria’s besieged Yarmouk camp

by Ali Abunimah
Tue, 01/14/2014 - 22:37

On 13 January, another attempt was made to take a humanitarian aid convoy into the besieged refugee camp of Yarmouk in Damascus, where about 20,000 people are trapped, including women and children.

The convoy was from UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, which serves over half a million Palestinian refugees in Syria, although about 70,000 of them have fled the fighting into Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere.

Amid reports of widespread malnutrition in Yarmouk, of women dying during childbirth because of shortages of medical care, and of children eating animal feed to survive, this is what happened to the UNRWA convoy.
This account was provided by Chris Gunness, spokesperson for UNRWA, and is reproduced verbatim:
The relief convoy which tried to get in to Yarmouk was an UNRWA convoy led by UNRWA staff and carrying humanitarian supplies loaded from UNRWA’s central warehouse in Damascus – six small trucks with food for 6,000 people along with 10,000 doses of polio vaccine and some medical supplies.

Syrian authorities provided us with a security escort enabling us to reach a last government-controlled checkpoint at the southern entrance of Yarmouk.

The convoy was cleared to proceed beyond the checkpoint and the Syrian authorities provided a bulldozer to go ahead to clear the road of debris, earth mounds and other obstructions.

The bulldozer was fired upon, hit by direct gunfire and forced to withdraw, though with no casualties. Thereafter, bursts of gunfire, including machine-gun fire, erupted close to the trucks and UNRWA vehicles, suggesting a firefight.
Also, one mortar exploded very close to the convoy. The convoy withdrew at this point following the advice of the security escort and returned safely to Damascus.

At no time was the UNRWA convoy fired upon. No person or convoy vehicle was hit and no one was injured.
When Syrian authorities gave UNRWA clearance to proceed to deliver assistance to Yarmouk, they required UNRWA to use the southern entrance to Yarmouk. This meant the convoy had to drive some 20 kilometres through an area of intense and frequent armed conflict, in which numerous armed opposition groups, including some of the most extreme jihadist groups, have a strong and active presence.

Citing security concerns, Syrian authorities did not give UNRWA permission to use the northern entrance to Yarmouk which is under government control, and which is generally regarded as more likely to be accessible with relatively less risk.
This is an extremely disappointing setback for the residents of Yarmouk who continue to live in inhumanely wretched conditions.

UNRWA remains undaunted by this frustrating failure and is already pressing Syrian authorities to support a further attempt to deliver humanitarian assistance to Yarmouk.
Yarmouk is only one of a number of Palestine refugee camps which endure various degrees of extremely harsh conditions.

Click here for a list of my other blogs on Syria

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