This is a response to Ali Abunimah´s article “Palestinians trapped in Syria war, denied aid, stalked by starvation”. In his article, the author focuses on the suffering of Palestinians trapped in the Yarmouk refugee camp, besieged by the Syrian army since the summer without access to food and other supplies. To read it, click here.
The fallacy of neutrality
As in many other Syrian neighborhoods, large segments of the Damascus Palestinian “unofficial” refugee camp Yarmouk joined the peaceful mobilizations and the widespread civil society efforts that emerged in March 2011 and were violently repressed by the regime.
As early as in June 2011, a local coordination committee was established in Yarmouk to coordinate protests, sit-ins, banners, slogans, civil work. Mohammad (who asked me not to share his last name) and Abu al-Abd Guevara (nickname), two Syrian Palestinians who had to flee the country and now live in Madrid, were in Yarmouk at the time. According to Guevara, “confusing the fact that Yarmouk was an open welcoming space with a position of neutrality is very misleading.” He continues:
People escaping the regime, and members of the civil opposition came from all over the city to take refuge in Yarmouk. We worked hand in hand in the camp, organized demonstrations, a coordination committee was formed… The regime started by targeting any form of peaceful activism, demonstrations, graffiti, chants, civil society building… that was what was happening all over the country, before the uprising became an armed rebellion. So Yarmouk was as “neutral” as the rest of Syria.
“It is true that many of us did not want the FSA to enter the camp because we thought that it would come at a high price, and we wanted to protect the people”, Ahmad explains. “However, things escalated after the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command killed 13 young Palestinians. The shabbiha from the General Command are as responsible for the suffering in Yarmouk as the regime itself.”
Ali Abunimah´s article, from the title itself – “Palestinians trapped in Syria war”- points at neutrality as a starting point, as if only Palestinians, and not civilians as a whole, were trapped in this tragic conflict. Neutrality is insisted on again through a quote:
According to Abou Nasser, while some youth in the camp organized in support of the Syrian opposition, “Yarmouk remained neutral the first year of the Syrian revolution,” amid “public awareness and consensus that the camp should be left out” of the conflict.
In addition to that, the “FSA enters the camp, regime bombs it” sub-headline of the article dangerously reminds us of the approaches that point at Hamas for Israeli attacks on Gaza. As if the Free Syrian Army (legitimate armed resistance, unlike illegitimate groups such as ISIS) was responsible for the ruthlessness of the regime against civilians. As if Assad needed excuses to shell and starve civilians.
The neutrality of Yarmouk is a fallacy, a recurrent and quite damaging one. To quote Talal Alyan, who wrote an outstanding article at Mondoweiss:
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
Syrian Palestinians are part of the reality they live in
Connected to the fallacy of neutrality is the focus on Palestinians as if they could be detached from the reality they have been part of, for several generations in many cases. Despite their strong sense of identity as Palestinians, Syrian Palestinians are culturally and socially Syrian, and they have equally suffered the corruption and the institutionalized injustice of the Assad-ruled system. There are Palestinians rotting in Assad´s jails and there are Palestinian shabbiha. The view of Palestinians as neutral victims “in Syria´s vicious war” is extremely dangerous and irresponsible, in addition to inaccurate.
Abunimah´s article starts by highlighting that “Palestinians have been disproportionately affected. More than half of the 540.000 Palestine refugees in the country have been forced from their homes by fighting”. However, more than half of the initial Syrian population (23 million) are now refugees or internally displaced as well, so there is no disproportion, but widespread suffering among the population.
Today, there are people all over the country, including Syrian Palestinians, who are being killed by starvation in neighborhoods like Yarmouk and Moaddamia. Starving the population as a strategy is despicable and intolerable, and it should be addressed as a whole, to avoid falling on sectarian views of our region, as composed of different breeds, religions, ethnicities that deserve different treatment. In the same way, the struggles for human rights in the region should be addressed as a whole. After all, the liberation of Palestine will not be achieved unless the people of the region are empowered and liberated from oppression.
As a Syrian, I am extremely grateful for the solidarity shown by the people of Yarmouk, which welcomed peaceful protesters and activists prosecuted by the regime, turning the camp into a symbol. Yarmouk was a model for the Syria many of us dream of, one that maintains its diversity while respecting every person´s fundamental rights.