Israel should allow return of Palestinian refugees

The Syria peace conference began last week in Switzerland with over 100,000 Syrians already dead and slim prospects for success.  Unpromisingly, Iran was squeezed out of the process by the United States and Saudi Arabia. 

Some 1,500 Palestinian refugees in Syria’s Yarmouk refugee camp have now been killed or have died during Syria’s proxy war, a disturbing number from starvation.  Those able have fled.  Palestinians, of course, have a long history enduring persecution; flight is not new to them.  Nevertheless, some 18,000 Palestinians remain in dire circumstances.  According to a man quoted by CNN, three were recently shot dead in Yarmouk by snipers while gathering grass to eat. The situation is appalling.

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Christopher Gunness of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency earlier this month described the deteriorating conditions: “There is profound civilian suffering with widespread incidence of malnutrition with the absence of medical care; including for those who have severe conflict-related injuries, and including for women in childbirth – there have been fatal consequences for some of these women. Residents including infants and children are subsisting for long periods on diets of stale vegetables, herbs, powdered tomato paste, animal feed and cooking spices dissolved in water.”

What is to be done for them?  Ariel Sharon once bitterly complained that it was unfair to blame him, an Israeli, for internal Arab violence in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps of Lebanon.  “I'm the only minister of defence in the world - the only one - who left his post and went back to work on a tractor, on his farm, as a result of what Christians did to Muslims. The only one.” Yet his troops had oversight over the terrible Phalangist slaughter of Palestinian civilians there and Israel’s own Kahan Commission determined Sharon bore “personal responsibility.”  Likewise, in Yarmouk, Israel has enormous responsibility.

Moral Israeli leadership – missing for years vis-à-vis Palestinians – would recognize that these Palestinian refugees have land in Israel from which they were forced to flee by Israeli terrorist gangs in 1948.  Israeli officials brag regarding their humanitarian aid to Haiti and the Philippines and to injured Syrian children yet stand by and do nothing for Palestinian refugees despite bearing an immense responsibility for the fact that Palestinian civilians are dying in the Syrian carnage.  Disturbingly, Israel’s culpability and responsibility for the fact that Palestinian refugees are there in the first place is receiving no serious talk in the ongoing charade of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Media reports confirm that over 63 Palestinians have lost their lives as a result of starvation. Forty-three perished in the last four weeks alone. Behind each and every victim there is a terrible story whose details we don’t yet know and probably never will. In a more just world these people would exercise their Right of Return and be living with equal rights in what is now northern Israel.   

Palestinians around the world are immensely frustrated and feel powerless as slow-motion starvation plays out in Yarmouk.

Recently, I called my mother in Gaza to see how they are coping with the inhumane Israeli-Egyptian blockade only to find her sobbing for the people in Yarmouk. “How can we reach them?,” Mom asked despite her knowledge that I have no answer to her question. “Remember how I used to send you with food to our old neighbors during Israeli curfews?  I wish we could do that for the residents of Yarmouk. Somebody ought to do that before it is too late.”  

Mom was referring to the first Intifada back in the 1980s when the Israeli army imposed curfews for days and weeks on Gaza refugee camps and towns. As a form of collective punishment, the entire population of my refugee camp, Khan Younis, would be placed under home arrest with no one allowed to leave home or go to shop. Jailed in our own homes, cut off from our community and normal life, we had a difficult time enduring.  We never forgot, however, our homes and lands just a few miles away from which we were expelled in the Palestinian Nakba, or catastrophe, of 1948.

I will never forget trying for days to get to one neighbor. The work was dangerous – and I was just a teenager – but the principles will remain with me for life. It was winter, as it is now in Yarmouk, and very cold.  The power was off.  I found the old woman cold and without food for two days.  Her stove was out of gas.  Usually talkative, she was pale, weak, hungry, lonely, and depressed. She had talked to nobody for days. Um Mohammed ate a little bit of what I offered. When I encouraged her to eat more she said she would save the rest as she didn’t know when the curfew would be lifted or when I or others would reach her next.

In Yarmouk today, there is no one to reach those in desperate need of help.  Recently, UNRWA decided to break the silence and sent a convoy of aid to the residents only to be faced by “numerous delays, interruptions and obstacles” by the Syrian army which controls one of the checkpoints on the northern edge of the camp. Just over 200 food baskets were allowed in, “a drop in the ocean,” as Gunness put it.  

No doubt I blame Arab leaders for this situation, including the Syrian army and the armed groups in control of Yarmouk.  But there is a broader context and a larger story to be told here. If Israel extended these refugees the Right of Return I have no doubt that the reckless gunmen controlling the camp today would allow them to stream out and return to family land they were dispossessed of in 1948 when Israel expelled over 700,000 Palestinians. 

Sharon would be irate to see Israel castigated for what is happening to Palestinian refugees in Syria.  But Sharon was a war criminal who contributed to that “original sin” of expelling Palestinians in 1948.  Israel will say no, but at the very least the international community should be advocating that Israel take up its responsibility and allow these desperate people to return home.

Ageel is a visiting professor at the University of Alberta (Edmonton) and a member of Faculty for Palestine, Alberta.