Lessons from Yarmouk

Every decade, another episode of dispossession and loss plays out for Palestinian refugees in troubled host countries.

Yarmouk is the latest reminder of the international community' failure to address the plight of Palestinian refugees, writes Munayyer [EPA]

In Yarmouk refugee camp, the largest concentration of Palestinians in Syria among the nine refugee camps there, the Palestinian population is trapped and suffering. The camp sits just south of Damascus and its strategic location has made it part of the battlefield, leaving refugees who would rather take a neutral stance for their own safety caught in the middle.

Prior to 2011, the camp was home to some 180, 000 Palestinian refugees, today only about 20,000 remain. Most of its inhabitants have been forced into becoming refugees again. Those stuck inside are trapped, and a stalemate between the government and rebels has led to a siege preventing humanitarian access for months. Only recently have emergency food packages been permitted entry.


Shocking deprivation in Syria’s Yarmouk

Partisans in the war in Syria have predictably used the crisis in Yarmouk to slam their opponents, but they are missing the larger point and the lesson from Yarmouk.

Yarmouk is merely the most recent episode in the legacy of the Nakba. Every decade or so another episode of dispossession and loss plays out for stateless Palestinian refugees in troubled host countries. Today it is Yarmouk. A decade ago it was Palestinian refugees caught in the midst of the war on Iraq.

A decade before that, Palestinian refugees living in Kuwait had to abandon their homes amidst the first gulf war. A decade before that, Palestinians were massacred in the camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon. A decade before that, the events known to Palestinians as “Black September” in Jordan also underscored the vulnerability of refugees in host countries during political violence.

Yes, what is happening in Yarmouk is part of the story of what is happening in Syria, but it is also part of the bigger story of Palestinian dispossession. The lesson the international community must take from Yarmouk is that the efforts to resolve the plight of Palestinian refugees must be redoubled and that they are as urgent today as ever.

Today, the refugees are located in various host countries in the Arab world but also elsewhere. Some Palestinian refugees fleeing conflict in host countries have been resettled in lands as far away as Sweden, Iceland, Chile and Australia. But why resettle these refugees across the globe when they have a homeland?

Instead of focusing efforts to resettle Palestinians everywhere but where they are from, the international community must work the pressure Israel to allow these refugees to finally return home.

The right of Palestinians to return to their towns and villages is non-negotiable and despite peace talks aimed at an “end of claims” agreement, no agreement that fails to uphold the Palestinian right to return can end all claims. The individual rights and claims of Palestinian refugees can never be signed away by the stroke of a pen.

Nor is the resettlement of Palestinian refugees in a would-be Palestinian state fair to either the refugees or the fledgling state of Palestine. A refugee from land in Nazareth cannot exercise his right to return in Nablus, nor can a refugee from Jaffa exercise this right in Jenin. 

Further, a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza would be on about 22 percent of Palestine. Compared to the Israeli state it would be a quarter of the land area, twice as densely populated, and yet have an economy 1/30th in size. Israel not only bears the responsibility, but it also has a far greater capacity for the absorption of returning refugees.

The right of return is a human right that Israel denies Palestinian refugees simply because they are not Jews and because any changes in demographics might challenge Jewish control of power in the state. Denial of human rights based on discrimination to keep one group in power is the hallmark of Apartheid. 

Yarmouk is but the latest reminder of the international community’s failure to address the plight of Palestinian refugees. Letting Israel off the hook and instead seeking alternative places in which to resolve the refugee issue is effectively apologising for Israel’s discriminatory policies. They should act immediately by demanding Israel allow repatriation in accordance with international law.

The inability to confront the human rights crisis at the foundation of the refugee question has led to one humanitarian crisis after the other. The refugees need a permanent solution, repatriation, and the equal rights and protections that everyone around the world desires and deserves.

The refugee issue must not be put on the backburner again; the time to act is now. We cannot afford to wait for the next inevitable tragic episode in the legacy of the Nakba.

Yousef Munayyer is Executive Director of The Jerusalem Fund and its educational programme, The Palestine Center. Prior to joining the Palestine Center, he served as a Policy Analyst for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the nation’s largest Arab American membership organisation.