I first blogged about Yarmouk in 2012 and have been tweeting about it since the start of 2014. I have questioned why "pro-Palestinian" activists, who manage to mobilise thousands for Gaza, seem to have been relatively quiet about the Palestinian people of Yarmouk, where people have been dying in huge numbers for three years now.
When I saw that there was an emergency demonstration for Yarmouk, called by Palestinian solidarity activists, in London on Tuesday, I thought I should put my money where my mouth is, and go along.
There were dozens of protesters there - somewhere between 50 and 100; I'm no longer good at estimating that sort of thing. A significant proportion of those present were probably from the Palestinian diaspora. There were flags of the Syrian revolution and of Palestine. There was no presence from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign or any of the other groups which organised protests about Gaza. There were two SWP paper sellers, not managing to sell many papers but they did get some people to hold their placards. The comedian Jeremy Hardy was there. The Syrian Solidarity Movement had a banner saying "Syrian refugees welcome here." Jews for Justice for Palestinians had a large banner. There were several keffiyehs. One protester had a banner saying "Yarmouk - made in Israel", but otherwise Israel did not feature in much of the material.
Names of many who have died of starvation in #Yarmouk read out in #London. Desperate situation# Syria #SaveYarmouk pic.twitter.com/wxeS1nFsJw
— Joseph Willits (@josephwillits) April 14, 2015
From the #SaveYarmouk demo this evening. Heart-breaking to hear names of residents who've died, mainly of starvation. pic.twitter.com/IP0Nu5BaP2
— Bob From Brockley (@bobfrombrockley) April 14, 2015
Six things I think I know about Yarmouk
Yarmouk was established in 1957, to house Palestinians squatting in and around Damascus, mainly families from the northern part of Palestine displaced in what Palestinians calls the Nakba, "catastrophe", the 1948 exodus in the wake of Israel's establishment as a state. Many came from Safad, scene of bitter conflict in 1948; others came from Haifa and Tiberius. Up to 700,000 Palestinians were displaced from Palestine in the conflict. This included up to 90,000 who went to Syria - rising to 127,000 by the 1960s, 400,00 by the end of the century. That multiplication of population was similar across the diaspora, and the descendants of the 1948 refugees now number 5 million, which is not much less than the current Jewish population of Israel, making the ideal of the right of return to Palestine increasingly hard to envisage without generating a new Nakba for the Jews.
2. Calling Yarmouk a refugee camp is misleading
Damascus in 2011 had a population of 2.5 million - that's about the size of Birmingham or Chicago. Yarmouk had a population of over 130,000, possibly as large as 200,000 - so about the size of Oxford or Reading, or a London borough such as Hammersmith and Fulham. Yarmouk is well within the metropolitan area of Damascus and its municipal boundaries. Built on the edge of town, the city has grown up around it. Before the war, it had hospitals, theatres, businesses, beauty salons, internet cafes, a rich cultural life. Its cityscape is dominated by five-storey low-rises. According to the BBC, "It had its own mosques, schools and public buildings. Literacy and numeracy rates among Palestinians in the camp were among the highest not just in Syria, but across the Arab world."
Although it is not an "official" camp, it is known as a camp simply because most of its inhabitants are Palestinians, and therefore retain the technical status of refugees. Palestinian refugees are the only refugees whose status is passed on down through the family line. Their welfare is not administered to by the UN's normal refugee agency, UNHCR, but by a seperate specific agency, UNWRA. This means a kind of permanent homelessness and statelessness for Palestinians - which in many ways has been encouraged by their leadership and by Arab governments, as a weapon against Israel.
3. Assad is no friend of the Palestinians
Assad, like his father and other Arab tyrants, has posed as a friend of the Palestinians. However, Syria's government, while giving Palestinians resident in Syria many of the rights of other Syrians (although of course all Syrians have only limited civil rights in this totalitarian state), denies them citizenship and restricts their property and land ownership rights. Assad has made them dependent clients on the Ba'athist state, in a position of indefinite limbo, unable to return to Palestine, unable to become Syrian.
It is clearly true that Daesh are one of the worst things to happen to Syria or the world in the recent past. It is not surprising, then, that their presence in Yarmouk in recent weeks should have finally focused some attention in the West on the its suffering. But Yarmouk's suffering at the hands of Syria's own government was already unimaginably bad.
You may have seen this image, circulated by UNRWA, I think early in 2014. This was over a year into the Ba'athist regime's siege (which began 18 December 2012). The siege, which began with heavy shelling that destroyed much of the urban infrastructure, was Assad's response to the activities of the Syrian revolution in Yarmouk. Under the siege, the residents became largely dependent on UNRWA food distribution, along with occasional dangerous forays out of the district. By mid-2013, the food distribution was disrupted by fighting and only a fraction of the necessary food was getting in. Civilians were dying in the crossfire between the regime and other factions. The arrival of ISIS was simply adding an extra drop to an ocean of suffering long since flowing over.
Sections of the Palestinian leadership (the PFLP) have been in alliance with Assad; others (in the PA) have remained studiously neutral. These factions' allies in the Western Palestinian solidarity organisations have followed their lead. Western governments have uttered stern words about Assad, but done nothing to create a No Fly Zone or take other steps to stop his slaughter. Most of the left, from Ed Miliband leftwards, have actively opposed doing anything about it. We are all complicit in Yarmouk's suffering.
The Western media are obsessed with ISIS, but there are marginally less extreme military factions who aren't much better. Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate, took control of large sections of Yarmouk early in 2014. They blocked the entry of aid and tightened rather than lifted the siege on the inhabitants. In December, they executed two Palestinian residents for blasphemy. There are several reports of co-operation with ISIS in Damascus (although they are at war elsewhere they have officially claimed to be neutral on Yarmouk) and there are growing numbers of reports that the two groups are increasingly co-operating in and around Yarmouk.
Significantly, there is considerable evidence suggesting that al-Nusra has been funded and supported by some of the West's allies in the region. The Obama administration has claimed that private individuals in Kuwait have heavily financed it, a claim made in more detail by other experts. Turkey actively supported al-Nusra from 2012 to 2014 and may continue to do so covertly, seeing it as a counterbalance to Kurdish forces. Joe Biden has also claimed that the Saudis and Emirates funded them too - later semi-retracting. And there is lots of evidence of Qatari support too. Crucially, all of these countries are intimately bound through trade and finance (including arms trade) to the US and UK.
And this support came in a period when the US and UK completely stood back from the conflict. Secular, democratic or moderate rebels (Syria's best hope), left without resources due to our lack of support, were rapidly depleted as al-Nusra grew. Once again, then, we are complicit in Yarmouk's suffering.
Given all of this, it is striking at the left has remained quiet about Yarmouk until recently. Electronic Intifada has occasionally mentioned Yarmouk (but often, as with this piece by Asa Winstanley, putting equal blame on "the rebels" and the regime, apparently because rebelling in Syria - unlike in Israel - is reckless provocation). A couple of powerful articles at MondoWeiss (by Talal Alyan and Mariam Barghouti) draw attention to the fact that the dominant mode was silence.
Shameful absence from Palestine Solidarity Campaign and other Palestinian solidarity groups from today's Yarmouk protest. Such hypocrites.The demonstration last week was only endorsed by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign under pressure at the very last minute, and the PSC had no presence at the demo. The PSC finally posted something that was more than tangentially about Yarmouk on its website on 9 April - curiously avoiding mention of any blame for Assad (or indeed any other specific parties - apart from Israel). Mehdi Hasan has recently written powerfully about this silence, saying "Our selective outrage is morally unsustainable." It seems to me that those in the BDS/anti-Zionist movement who have been silent about Yarmouk are not pro-Palestinian but simply anti-Israel.
— لينة (@LinahAlsaafin) April 14, 2015