Cornell SJP responds to the situation in Syria’s Yarmouk refugee camp

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

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

The situation in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, the ghost capital of the Palestinian Shatat, is intolerable. Over the last several months, the camp’s remaining Palestinians have been closed off from without and deprived of food by government troops, invaded from within by the Saudi and Qatari-armed insurgents whom the siege seeks to contain. More die daily due to starvation and lack of medical supplies – over thirty five since December.

This comes on the heels of over a year of battles in Yarmouk, including government shelling of the camp. More than 150,000 Palestinian refugees used to make their homes there. It was one of the biggest and best-developed of the Palestinian refugee camps, with better educational opportunities than almost any other Palestinian camp, affording its residents a far greater chance for advancement.

Furthermore, the camp was a safe space for the politically persecuted, and home to manifold underground political movements. It also nurtured a strong and sophisticated cultural infrastructure, becoming not simply a camp, but a crucial quarter of urban Damascus, the political center for Palestinian political activity in Syria, and one of the historical nerve centers of the Palestinian liberation struggle.

All of that is now done.

Over the past year, as a result of a fraught military escalation, Yarmouk has become a charnel house, the overwhelming majority of its people in flight, while the remaining few die of starvation.

We cannot accept this. No one has the right to deny another food, or to use food as a weapon of war. For that reason, Cornell Students for Justice in Palestine stands with the remaining few Palestinians in Yarmouk. We ask that the government coordinate with the United Nations or other capable and non-compromised agencies to ensure that the people of Yarmouk can eat. We demand that the armed groups respect its neutrality and leave the camp immediately. And we insist that the Palestinian refugees in Syria be allowed home to Palestine.

As we are aware of how much imperialism relies on historical amnesia, suddenly rousing us to outrage at atrocities it played the major part in creating, we would like here to mention some facts.

First, the Palestinian refugees of Yarmouk are there because the settler-colonial state of Israel expelled them and refused to allow them their natural rights to return to their homes. Israel is not the root of all regional problems. It is certainly the root of the Palestinian refugee problem, as Syria’s Palestinians are pushed from place to place, from peril to peril. Their return to their homeland is paramount.

Second, it was Israel as a willing tool of imperialism which slammed the Arab nationalist cause in 1967, setting the Ba’ath party on its rightward course, eventually hollowing out its social agenda and setting the stage for the protests which broke out in 2011.

Third, it was Gulf money in alliance with US imperialism which turned the Palestine Liberation Organization into a hollow shell, unable to do anything meaningful for its people. Part of that process was the US-Israeli war against the PLO in the early 1980s in Lebanon – a war which led to further Palestinian flight to Syria. The absence of a political vehicle capable of advocating for the Palestinians of Yarmouk is by the deliberate design of US power. The consequences of that absence are now hammering the 20,000 remaining people in the camp.

And fourth, we do not forget the US and Gulf role in militarizing the small bright hopeful protests which began in the spring of 2011 across Syria, snuffing out those fires of hope in a deluge of sectarianism, foreign proxies, and destruction. Nor do we forget that it was the Free Syrian Army, the brand-name for the “milder” of the Western-armed gangs which have rampaged across Syria, along with Jabhat al-Nusra and other reactionary militias which went into Yarmouk a year ago. It was their decision to enter the camp in late 2012 which led to the subsequent violence and its emptying out, with its people now in global scatter, some literally drowning in the Mediterranean.

Such 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.

And because those bands are in part the creation of US imperialism, so are we. For we refuse a stance which places us as external judges of the long history of intervention which prepared the ground for the current crisis. That is not someone else’s history, it did not happen to someone else, in another world or another time. It is our history, and our responsibility, as citizens or non-citizens, as taxpayers, and most of all as dissidents from the US government’s criminal policies.

Taking ownership of that history also means we understand and respect that those in different places – not least the Palestinian nation itself – may and must choose different demands around which to rally, different bodies to hold responsible.

Furthermore, we know that humanitarian aid is a short-run emergency measure. In the medium-run, we see no end to the Syrian bloodbath without a defeat or withdrawal of the imperialist forces shattering the country.

Syria must be left to the Syrians.

Nevertheless, we repeat here that our basic demands are that the government must let food into Yarmouk, and that the armed groups must respect the neutrality of the camp, which means they must leave it. Furthermore, we demand the right of return for the Palestinians of Yarmouk, and record the irreducible responsibility of Israel and its Western backers for their displacement.

And following those demands we say the following. To make the Palestinians of Yarmouk a pawn in anyone’s game is unacceptable. We reject categorically such scandalous manipulation of the lives and the culture of resistance of this desperate and resilient people.

In solidarity and struggle.

Cornell Students for Justice in Palestine

This post originally appeared on Cornell SJP’s blog

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