While you were neutral about Yarmouk

ActivismIsrael/PalestineMiddle EastUS Politics
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Ruined buildings in the Yarmouk refugee camp, summer 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

Ruined buildings in the Yarmouk refugee camp, summer 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

While you were insisting on neutrality about Yarmouk, the Syrian regime dropped barrel bombs on it. Mohammad Al Far. Husam Abo Ahmad. Mohammad Tafori. Mohammad Suhaib Al Qides. Ala’a Fri’j. These men are all dead. Mohammad Taha would later die too when he, along with a larger demonstration, approached a regime checkpoint in frustration after the carnage rained on them from above.

The Pro-Palestinian movement was delayed in picking up on the tragic unraveling of Yarmouk. It took the work of a great deal of dedicated activists to force it into the forefront of the solidarity movement’s agenda. What couldn’t be predicted, however, was that, in the place of silence, an ugly neutrality would hover over the new-founded concern. And that said the neutrality was often an unconvincing veil for something much more vile. Perhaps, in our naivety, we believe that when Yarmouk became visible, it would be nearly impossible to omit the clear fact that the siege was being imposed by the Syrian regime. Instead, it was the oppositional fighters in the camp who fell under the spotlight. A chorus emerged, one familiar enough to evoke a surreal sense of Déjà vu.

Yarmouk had transformed into Gaza. But this time, it was our side that was rationalizing the blockage, entertaining and validating the motives offered for collective punishment, instead of flatly rejecting it as a cruel practice.

As Lebanese blogger Mahmoud Mroueh wondered, “ ‘The Terrorists need to leave the refugee camp so civilians stop dying’–Zionist or Palestine solidarity activist?”

Al Awda, an organization dedicated to the Palestinian Right of Return, released a statement mourning Yarmouk. The culprit, however, was left obscured. “We call upon all parties, the Syrian government and the armed opposition, to take responsibility for any actions on their part.”

There is no equivalence to be drawn. By definition, a siege is forced by one party on another, imposing a collective punishment. The Palestinians of Yarmouk are starving? Agreed. The government is blocking the flow of goods? Agreed. Who is to blame for Yarmouk? Neutrality.

The US Palestinian Community Network issued a bolder statement calling on,” all parties involved to immediately uphold the agreement of the Palestinians in Yarmouk itself: that the armed groups hiding in the camp must exit, and that the siege of the camp must end immediately”

The rationalization of collective punishment. They oppose the siege. But peddle the reasons given by those implementing it. While there have been calls from within Yarmouk for armed groups to leave, it is a distant secondary thought. Palestinians from Yarmouk know that the regime is responsible for the imposed siege, and they resent that this point is muddled.

Salim Salamah, a Palestinian from Yarmouk, told me, “I mean with everything we are going through today, our belonging to Palestine is not defined anymore of our dream for our grandfather’s land, it is not embodied in a demonstration we hold on land day. With all the severe conditions, the romantic idea of Palestine is collapsing. We are third generation Palestinians; most of the ones inside Yarmouk now never saw Palestine. And then Palestinians outside Syria hold apolitical events to support us! They think they understand us and they do things like that!”

And he is right. For Palestinians from Syria, it has always been a lot clearer. “People in Yarmouk today and everyday saw where the mortars were coming from,” Salim explains, “and heard the warplane that approached today and bombed my friend’s building in Yarmouk. It should be clear to everybody who is to blame: Assad, Assad and then Jibril’s militia. The solution is clear, open Yarmouck from the north.”

Thaer Alsahli, another Palestinian from Yarmouk, agrees, “Instead of using its planes to drop boxes of food and medicine to the people under siege, it used them to drop barrel bombs to kill and injure those who have not yet died of hunger,” he continues,  “it is worth mentioning that most of the opposition fighters from outside the camp withdrew a while ago, under the framework of a truce that was signed around two weeks ago but that hasn’t been implemented, due to obstruction by the regime and the factions Fatah Al-Intifada and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command. There are now just dozens of Palestinian fighters left inside the camp, who agreed with the terms of the truce. This proves the vengeful intentions of the regime and these two factions towards the camp and the people under siege inside it.”

Most heinous of all, a recent statement released by SJP Cornell, in which they “ask” that the Assad regime “coordinate with the United Nations” to let food in and then “demand” that armed groups leave. In the 18-paragraph statement, comprised mostly of diatribes against “Western-armed gangs” and “Saudi and Qatari-armed insurgents”, the SJP chapter mildly faults the government exactly 4 times. The oppositional militants, on the other hand, absorb the larger majority of the scorn. SJP Cornell goes as far as to say, “armed bands must have known full well that the government had been adopting a scorched-earth counter-insurgency technique. So they, too, are responsible for what is occurring in Yarmouk.”

A tyranny given validation by a group founded to combat the injustices of a different tyranny.

SJP Cornell concludes, “Syria must be left to the Syrians.” As, perhaps, “Palestine must be left to the Palestinians.” The chapter may be referring specifically to foreign governmental intervention. But the language of the statement indicates something more insidious. With its unwillingness to offer solidarity to the revolution, it suggests that there is valiance to not taking an explicit side, all done under the guise of promoting self-determination. Ergo, forfeit your solidarity all non-Palestinian members of SJP Cornell! Let us sort it out. Don’t take sides, you imperialist! If we are to die under the gun of Apartheid, you would do well to spare us your misguided solidarity, your foolish assumption that tyranny should opposed in all manifestations, even if the despot shares the nationality of his victim.

But these statements, this cowardice disguised as concern, do something much worse than simply revealing hypocrisies.  The statement from SJP Cornell is a disaster, not only for the Palestinian solidarity movement but also more generally for the continuation of the Palestinian cause. We cannot ask that the world stand with us against our oppressor while we whitewash, or deflect, the crimes of someone else’s. And neutrality about suffering, when confronted with an identifiable source, does exactly that. It obscures. What would we do with the sympathy of someone who cares for Palestine but is only interested in equally faulting all parties?  Denial of a crime, or who commits it, is an endorsement by default. And make no mistake; peddling ambiguity is a form of denial.

“Cornell has internalized a role that benefits the colonizer,” a Palestinian-Syrian, who asked not to be named, explains, “we can’t reconcile the fascism of Assad with being anti-colonial. Palestinians in Yarmouk are Palestine. An attack on them is an attack on Palestine.”

The divide among Palestinians, and our cause, grows deeper. He continues, “Palestinian Syrians feel as though we are becoming separate. In other Palestinian camp in Syria, people couldn’t sleep because they knew Yarmouk was suffering. Solidarity with Palestinian Syrians against the war crimes of Assad is an act of resistance against Israeli colonialism. The health of the next revolutionary cycle and third intifada in Palestine is contingent on whether the liberation struggle in Syria is embraced.“

“The Palestinian Syrians are going nowhere. We know who is committing the siege. We know it is collective punishment. We know he (Assad) is war criminal. Denialism is not revolutionary. We may be at a loss now,” he reflects, ”but we will not forget those who didn’t point out who is starving us and they will be called out. They attacked us with a refusal to call out Assad.”

Riyad Al Turk once famously described Syria as a kingdom of silence.

I wonder what Hassan Hassan, while being tortured to death by the regime, was able to recognize that these denialists seem blind to, perhaps that the borders of this kingdom of silence extend much further than Syria.

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