From London to Yarmouk

Yarmouk: the Palestinian neighbourhood in Damascus where thousands have died, bombed by Assad, starved under seige by the Syrian regime, and more recently invaded by Islamic State fighters. Mostly ignored by the Western media until ISIS made it somehow news-worthy this month.

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.
After a short, powerful statement by the organisers, they read out some of the names of people who have died in Yarmouk: newborn babies, children, adults, elders. Died in airstrikes, killed by sniper fire, died from lack of medical care after suffering from treatable problems - but mostly starved to death. Listening to these names - of people who come to us through the media merely as numbers, if at all - was heart-breaking.

Six things I think I know about Yarmouk

1. The story of Yarmouk is the story of the Palestinian diaspora
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.

4. The Syrian regime's crimes in Yarmouk far outweigh those of ISIS
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.

5. Jabhat al-Nusra are not much better than Daesh
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.

6. The silence on Yarmouk should shame the left
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.
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.


bob said…
There were three things that I meant to say in this post that I forgot to, plus a fourth thing that's come up since.


I made a big deal of the double standards of alleged Palestinian supporters whose solidarity or compassion appears to be selective, only coming out when Jews are the oppressor. A lot of Israel supporters make that same point. However, many (though by no means all) of those Israel supporters are equally guilty of double standards and selective compassion. At the demonstration, there were neither the thousands who marched for Gaza, nor the Israel supporters who'd been loudly calling them out. Palestinians, once again, are not the real story for either side in this Manichean proxy struggle.


I gave the impression in the post that I think no Palestinian supporters, except perhaps for some who are actually Palestinian, have been making a fuss about Yarmouk until recently. Clearly that's not true. There was an emergency resolution passed by the PSC at its January 2014 AGM, a year into the seige, calling on calls on all parties to allow aid to enter; it's not online so I don't know if it actually put blame on Assad.

I believe individual PSC supporters were involved in getting an Early Day Motion passed about Yarmouk in 2014 It is interesting that this EDM was not put forward by any of PSC's own MPs, but by Julian Huppert, who is a supporter of JfJfP but an opponent of BDS.

Finally, outside the BDS organisations, individual Palestine solidarity activists (I'm thinking of CAABU's Joseph Willets or of tweeter Daniel Wickham), as well as Palestine-sympathetic human rights activists such as Ken Roth have been talking about Yarmouk since the siege began.


In commenting on al-Nusra, I meant to also note that there are lots of reports of Qatar and Turkey and now Saudi Arabia working hard to pivt al-Nusra away from al-Qaeda and align more closely with other Islamist groups involved with it in the Jaysh al Fateh coalition, which the Sunni great powers have been actively supporting militarily (and which has been advancing in Idlib on the basis of that support).

Worryingly, Israel, which started off the conflict hoping Assad would stay in power, appears to be giving some support (including medical treatment) to al Nusra and others of these Sunni groups - as part of its imperative to keep Iran away from its border (with lots of evidence now that Iran and its Hezbollah proxy are concentrating on the Golan border), which creates an alignment of interest between Israel and the Sunni powers. The kind of realpolitik behind this is, in my view, long term disastrous.


Since this post, I've been arguing on Twitter with Gary Spedding (see this thread: ) about my point about the word "camp" above. He argues that the term is right, because it is a temporary place of abode, but I am unconvinced. I'm willing to be persuaded I'm wrong, but I don't see a sense in which the word "camp" meaningfully covers an urban neighbourhood such as Yarmouk has become. However, this, and all of the points I make in this post, are based on second hand reading. If you know better, please tell me how I am wrong.
Great piece, Bob. I share your disappointment at the failure of the PSC and other Palestine solidarity organisations to take up the cause of Yarmouk. I don't know if the acknowledgement of the current situation by the PSC represents a permanent shift or not. Its interesting that they reproduced the call for the demo verbatim. But their own "call to action" was extremely feeble. There seems to have been a shift in the position of Electronic Intifada, whose editor Maureen Clare Murphy has published comments of her own critical of the regime, and also published a number of other articles in the same vein.
A couple of factual points:
I don't think its true that Turkey supported Jabhat al Nusra from 2012 (or supported them that much at all): they initially patronised one strand of the FSA - Riad al Assad's current; later they seem to have practised an "open border" policy that allowed jihadists to cross over freely as a means of putting pressure on Asad. There are reports of more concrete assistance to JaN in the northwest to facilitate its attacks on the YPG; that's certainly possible but I don't think proven.
I also take the charges that Israel is supporting JaN with a pinch of salt. This is a regime narrative that is based on reports from the UN peacekeepers in the Golan. But as far as I can ascertain the group that is involved is not JaN but the al-Yarmouk Martyr's brigade - a local Islamist outfit (the Yarmouk reference is to the river not the camp). This area has been heavily bombed by the regime, so it could be civilians who are the main recipients of Israeli medical care.
The main Palestinian faction allied with the regime is not the PFLP but the PFLP-GC (General Command), there are some half-dozen other pro-Asad factions, which the regime refers to collectively as "the resistance factions".
Your debate with Spedding strikes me as somewhat pedantic on his part. But in my opinion you are in the right: almost every comment I've read by anyone with local knowledge makes the point that its not really a camp. Moreover they point out that many of the residents were not Palestinian at all but Syrians who chose to settle there. (Perhaps 25% of the peak population of 200,000).
Anyway, keep up the good work - I assume you know about our "save Yarmouk" facebook page.
StephenB said…
"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."

For a moment I thought I was on Sussex Friends of Israel's FB page. You are not Simon Cobbs alter ego are you ?

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