Unlike Lebanon where Palestinian refugees are third-class residents at best, criminally discriminated against, the Syrian regime in general treated the Palestinians relatively well. Palestinians from the refugee camps in Syria were allowed to work in any profession, could own property and were high achievers in the Syrian economy and overall one of the more educated populations groups in Syria. Yarmouk camp grew and prospered and the old shantytown, built in just under three square kilometers, developed into a densely populated urban center with decent housing and a booming private sector. In return for relatively good treatment by the Syrian regime the Palestinians in the camps repaid the regime with their respect with loyalty.
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The Syrian regime organized the Palestinian resistance movements against what it saw as the conciliatory moves of the PLO under Yasser Arafat, namely his signing of the Oslo agreements. Damascus became the home for Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front General Command of Ahmed Jabril and other radical Palestinian opposition groups.
The residents of the refugee camps in Syrian come mostly from the Galilee, and became refugees after the establishment of Israel in 1948, and many were refugees at least twice before settling there. Now there are third- and even some fourth-generation Palestinians born in Yarmouk. They never gave up the dream of “returning” to their homes in the Galilee although in reality, from studies conducted over the years, it was apparent to most that they would never return.
They have been played as a pawn in the Israeli-Arab conflict and kept in this bizarre “refugee” status for decades. They could have been granted citizenship by Syria and integrated into their new country, but they were not. They remained Palestinian in their identity, and part of the larger family of displaced Palestinians.
In mid-2011 when the Arab Spring erupted in Tunisia and then Egypt and Libya, it came quickly to Syria, and Sunni-led groups opposed to the Assad regime began revolting and calling for the downfall of that brutal Syrian regime. Palestinians were not part of the uprising, but with the support of Shi’ite Iran and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah from Lebanon, the Assad regime began attacking the Palestinian refugee camps in fear that they would support the Sunni opposition.
Palestinian Muslims are Sunnis, but most of the Palestinians in Syria did not take sides; nonetheless the Assad regime decided that they were the enemy.
Starting in August 2011 the Hamas leadership began its evacuation of Syria – they had the support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and a place to go to.
Those not in the leadership of Hamas had nowhere to run from the brutality of Assad and his butchers, and the Palestinians in Syria suffered. Hamas refused to support Assad and even broke ranks with Iran over its demand to support the Assad regime. After the Assad regime had already killed so many Palestinians, Hamas could not agree to Iran’s demands. The Palestinians in the refugee camps in Syria were decimated and devastated. Thousands fled Yarmouk and other refugee camps in Syria, becoming refugees once again.
Many died of hunger and cold during this past very harsh winter. Simply put, this has been a humanitarian disaster for the past several years.
Now the Yarmouk camp has been brutally attacked by Islamic State (IS), who are fighting against Assad and his Iranian-backed Hezbollah allies. The Palestinians are being bombed and killed by both sides and the camp’s population has dwindled to less than 18,000 people – and dropping every day. There are daily reports of massacres and rapes inside of Yarmouk.
This is a humanitarian crisis that almost no one in the world cares about. The hypocrisy of the world is well known; if it was Israel attacking the camp, the whole world would be there to lend a hand to those refugees and to attack Israel. But that is not the case.
There is only one place where those remaining refugees can go and feel at home – to Palestine, to the West Bank. This is the only place that can offer them a safe haven. It is the only place that could claim to want them. In the past when the attacks against the camp first began this was proposed, but Israel attached a condition that any one of them that came to the West Bank would have to sign an official document giving up any right of return they might claim in the future. The Palestinian public and leadership was totally against giving into what they called Israel’s “blackmail.”
This is not the time to score political points – it is the time to save human lives. It is the time to do the right thing for our neighbors. It is the humane gesture that we Jews should understand the need for, recalling with empathy when we had no place to run to and no place to call home.
Israel should announce immediately its willingness to have those 18,000 remaining residents of Yarmouk come to the West Bank. There should be no conditions attached to Israel’s benevolent action.
The United Nations should provide safe passage for these people. The international community should assist with funds and resources – especially from the Arab world – to enable these poor suffering people to have a new beginning in their homeland. Israel could allow new towns to develop in lands located in area “C”, under full Israel control, that are adjacent to the Palestinian cities, and transfer their designation to area “B” under Palestinian civilian control and Israeli security responsibility. Israel successfully absorbed one million Jews from the former Soviet Union and has a lot of experience it could offer. We are talking about only 18,000 people.
This gesture on Israel’s part would be so valued and appreciated regionally and internationally. There is so much to gain from it in trying to build a new relationship with the Palestinian people. It could be a whole re-start of the launching of a new process looking toward more peaceful relations between Israel and the Palestinians. Once settled into their “old-new” homeland, the rescuing of these people would create a new reality for them settling home with their brothers and sisters in Palestine.
As the Talmud states, whoever preserves a single soul, it is as though he had preserved a whole world.
The author is co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His new book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and as The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas by The Toby Press.