Jerusalem has one of the largest concentrations of press in the world, and as a result, Israel is certainly one of the most scrutinized states. It is perhaps for this reason that the international media can only focus on the Palestinians in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and Gaza, while ignoring the plight of Palestinians elsewhere in the Arab World, and especially in the mayhem that is the Syrian civil war, where Palestinians are being brutalized by the Assad regime and the Islamist resistance. Naturally, the western comforts of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are more appealing than the killing fields of Syria and Iraq. The fate of the Palestinians in Syria is of no interest to western journalists, if Israel cannot be blamed.
Sharif Nashashibi, writing for Al-Jazeera (October 15, 2016) pointed out that, “The Palestine solidarity movement is facing an unprecedented internal crisis, brought about not by the conflict with Israel, but by the war in Syria. The latter has caused divisions that are arguably deeper and more damaging than those over how to realize Palestinian rights and aspirations.”
Essentially, in the civil war in Syria, the Palestinians have been caught in the middle of the fighting among various factions. Some are fighting on the anti-Assad regime side, however most have chosen to remain neutral in a conflict they consider to be a domestic Syrian affair. Needless to say that neutrality went by the wayside, once the war came to the Palestinians doorstep.
Those Palestinian groups supporting the Assad regime include the leftist PFLP-GC (a terror group) and the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party. Some Christian leaders such as Bishop Atallah Hanna, the Greek-Orthodox Archbishop of Sebastia, also support the Assad regime. Hamas supports the opposition to Assad, and remembers Hafez Assad’s 1982 massacre of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood in Hama. Other Gaza-based salafist groups support al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Palestinian groups supporting the opposition remember the role Assad’s Syria played in the massacre of Palestinians at the Lebanese refugee camp of Tel al-Zaatar in 1976. Fatah, the largest group (party) within the P.L.O. seeks to remain neutral.
The war in Syria affected Palestinians as it did Syrians. Both Syrians and Palestinians have endured kidnapping and death. The UK-based Action Group for Palestinians in Syria estimated that 3,420 (including 455 females) Palestinians have been killed since the beginning of the war in 2011. By some estimates, about 250 Palestinians have been kidnapped for ransom, and at least 30 community leaders have been assassinated. UNRWA sources reported that 280,000 Palestinians, almost half of the Palestinian population that is officially recognized in Syria, has been displaced internally, while 80,000 left Syria for Europe. An estimated 43,000 left for Lebanon, about 16,000 moved to Jordan, and 8,000 to Turkey. Ninety-five percent of Palestinians in Syria are dependent on humanitarian aid provided by UNRWA.
These stark statistics indicate a fundamental problem, which is inherently Arab in the making. The refusal of the Arab states, whether Syria, Lebanon, or Egypt, to integrate their Palestinian fellow Arab-Muslims (predominantly Sunni) into their society has resulted in Palestinian statelessness. That is despite sharing the same language, religion, and culture. Unlike Israel, which absorbed and integrated close to a million Jewish refugees from the Arab countries, the Arab states used the Palestinians as pawns in a political game against Israel.
The Yarmouk camp outside Damascus, where most Palestinians were housed, became a battleground between the Assad regime and the anti-regime rebels. The Free Syrian Army entered the camp first. That brought about the Assad regime dropping barrel bombs on the camp, which caused most of the population (Syrians as well as Palestinians) to flee. It resulted in the exodus of the camps residents, which left only 18,000 remaining in the camp. Al-Nusra (the al-Qaeda affiliate) used the chaos to move into the camp, and with them came along the Islamic State (IS). In April, 2015, when the extremist terrorizing IS entered the Yarmouk camp, many of the remaining 18,000 Palestinians and Syrians fled.
Khaled Abu Toameh, writing for the Gatestone Institute (January 23, 2017) quoted Arab sources saying that “The year 2016 was full of all forms of killing, torture and displacement of Palestinians in Syria. The last year was hell for these Palestinians and its harsh consequences will not be erased for many years to come. During 2016, Palestinians in Syria were subjected to the cruelest forms of torture and deprivation at the hands of armed gangs and the ruling Assad’s Syrian regime. It is hard to find one Palestinian family in Syria that has not been affected.”
According to the same sources, the Assad regime was withholding the bodies of more than 456 Palestinians who died under torture in Syrian prisons. The Assad regime refused to release the bodies to the families. More disturbing however, are reports that the Syrian regime is harvesting the organs of dead Palestinians. United Arab Emirate based al-Khaleej (The Gulf in English) newspaper published in the Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, suggested that “testimonies collected by some Palestinians point out that Syrian government-linked gangs have been trading in the organs of the victims, who include women and children. In addition, 1,100 Palestinians have been languishing in Syrian prisons since the beginning of the civil war.”
It is rather ironic if not downright revealing that Israel, rather than much of the Arab world, is seeking ways to help wounded Syrians. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared on December 20, 2016 that he instructed his government to “find ways to extend medical assistance to Syrians injured in the latest fighting, especially those from the embattled city of Aleppo.” Addressing foreign journalists at a meeting in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said, “We see the tragedy of terrible suffering of civilians and I have asked the Foreign Ministry to seek ways to expand our medical assistance to civilian casualties of the Syrian tragedy, specifically in Aleppo where we’re prepared to take wounded women and children, and also men, if they are not combatants.”
The Times of Israel reported on January 25, 2017 “Israel is to grant refugee status to 100 orphaned Syrian refugee children, in line with a decision by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri.” According to Israel’s Channel 10-TV, “the children will receive temporary resident status and become permanent residents after four years, and be able to remain in Israel for their entire lives.”
While Israel is lending a helping hand to the people of an enemy country, Palestinian leadership in Ramallah and Gaza are busy scoring points against each other, as their people in Syria suffer. Mahmoud Abbas is more concerned with the Trump administration’s declared intention to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem than the plight of his people in Syria. Abbas has warned of violence if the U.S. embassy moves to Jerusalem, but has been rather quiet on the bloodshed committed against his brethren in Syria.
Mahmoud Abbas can count on the western press to amplify his self-righteous threats, but the same western press has been silent on the destruction in the Yarmouk camp, and the plight of its Palestinian residents.