Starving Refugees: How We Disowned Palestinians in Syria

A worst case scenario is unfolding in Syria, and Palestinian refugees, particularly in the Yarmouk refugee camp, are paying a heavy price for Syria’s cruelest war. They are starving, although there can be no justification, nor logistical explanation for why they are dying from hunger.

Spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Chris Gunness, told AFP that "at least five Palestinian refugees in the besieged refugee camp of Yarmouk have died because of malnutrition, bringing the total number of reported cases to 15," since Sept. 2013. Other estimates, especially those reported by local residents, say the number is significantly higher.

The camp, which is located south of Damascus, had once housed nearly 250,000 Palestinians that included 150,000 officially registered refugees. Three years of a brutal war later, Yarmouk is now nothing but ruins, and houses only around 18,000 residents who couldn’t escape to Lebanon, Jordan or elsewhere.

Reporting for the BBC from Damascus, Lyse Doucet quoted aid officials: "Aid officials in Damascus recently told me ‘the gates of Yarmouk were slammed shut in July’ and almost no aid has been allowed to enter since then."

A minor Palestinian group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – the General Command, has tried to control Yarmouk on behalf of the Syrian government, an act that the refugees rejected. There has been a semi-consensus among Palestinians that they should not be embroiled in Syria’s war. However, the warring parties – the Syrian government, the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other Islamic groups – desperately tried to use every card in their disposal to weaken the other parties. The result has been devastating and is taking place at the expense of innocent refugees.

Aside from the 1,500 reportedly killed Palestinians and thousands more wounded, the majority of the refugees are once again on the run, although in more perilous circumstances. According to a statement by UNRWA on Dec. 17, "of the 540,000 Palestine refugees registered with UNRWA in Syria, about 270,000 are displaced in the country, and an estimated 80,000 have fled. 51,000 have reached Lebanon, 11,000 have identified themselves in Jordan, 5,000 are in Egypt, and smaller numbers have reached Gaza, Turkey and farther afield."

Not that other Arab countries have proven kinder than Syria, for the UN agency reports that "those who have reached Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt face risky legal limbo compounded with living conditions so difficult that many decide to return to the dangers inside Syria."

Yarmouk has been at the heart of that tragedy. The refugee camp was established in 1957 to shelter thousands of refugees who were expelled from Palestine at the hand of Zionist militias in 1947-48. Despite the fact that it was located in Syria, Yarmouk remained close to the pulse of the Palestinian tragedy, as hundreds of men were killed fighting against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Although Palestinians in Syria were generally treated well, if compared to the very poor standards set by other Arab countries, thousands of men found themselves victims of occasional political purges of the Syrian government. An example of this followed the 1983 fallout between late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

But the latest disaster is the worst to strike the refugee camp. In Dec. 2012, rebels of the FSA tried to gain control over the camp. Fierce fighting ensued, followed by aerial bombardment of Yarmouk by government airplanes on Dec. 16. Dozens were reportedly killed, and thousands fled for their lives.

Despite the obvious signs of danger surrounding Palestinian presence in Syria, only then did the Palestinian leadership attempt to negotiate a special status for Yarmouk so that the stateless Palestinians were kept out of a conflict that was not of their making. Some Palestinian factions were used by other regional powers to declare political stances regarding the conflict in Syria. The refugees should have never been used as fodder for a dirty war and all attempts at sparing the refugees have failed.

The failure has been across the board. Typically, the so-called international community is at the forefront of this shameful episode. "There’s deep frustration in the aid community that a world which came together to deal with Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal cannot do the same when it comes to tackling a deepening humanitarian crisis," reported Doucet, quoting an aid official: "I have never seen a humanitarian crisis on this scale which does not have a Security Council resolution."

The same could be said of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah which is chasing after another ‘peace process’ mirage that is surely doomed to fail. Why hasn’t PA president Mahmoud Abbas put all of his frivolous talks and appointments on hold and lobby the international community to save Yarmouk?

The disgrace hardly ends here, for some in the Palestine solidarity movement had ceased to think of the Palestinian refugees’ right of return as an issue that is at the heart of the Palestinian struggle for freedom. They only mobilize around the same issues which are located within the territorial and political parameters imposed by the Oslo accords. According to that logic, Palestinians in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and so on, are hardly a top priority for action and mobilization, even if they are killed by the hundreds or starve to death.

By paying greater attention to Palestinian refugees in Syria, one is hardly calling for ignoring the horrible reality under which the Syrian people continue to suffer. But Palestinian refugees have no legal status, no political representation, no serious international support, no leadership truly concerned by their plight, no place to go to nor place to return to. They have nothing, and now they are starving.

There can be no rationale to explain why the Syrian government and the rebels insist on embroiling the Palestinians into their war which is accumulating into an assortment of many war crimes that refuse to end.

The international community and Palestine solidarity groups everywhere must place Palestinian refugees on the top of their agenda. Food should never be a weapon in this dirty war, and Palestinians should never be starving to death, no matter the motive or the logic.

Ramzy Baroud ( is a media consultant, an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of His latest book is My Father was A Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press).

5 thoughts on “Starving Refugees: How We Disowned Palestinians in Syria”

  1. The plight of Palestinians in the middle east is truly heart wrenching. I'd like to see all the money the US sends to Israel used to feed, clothe, and shelter Palestinians made homeless and destitute by Israel since 1948. Then I'd like to see Israel begin making reparations to all those same Palestinians. Neither is likely to happen any time soon, and I fear many more Palestinians will starve to death before the international community does anything to stop it or alleviate the suffering. People don't matter to the world's "elite." All that concerns them is money, power, and who gets to share in those things. They continue to do their best to make sure it's as few as possible.

  2. I assume this means the Yarmouk camp has been "liberated" by Obama's so-called "freedom fighters"?

    This reminds me…does anyone know the status of the estimated ~2 million Iraqi refugees who fled to Syria during the Iraqi "liberation"?

    1. I read about the Iraqi refugees and even Egypt put restrictions on receiving any more Iraqi's entering their country between 2012-2013 !!!
      Refugees flee Syrian civil war, and targeted excecutions.
      In 2012–13, as a Syrian civil war intensified, many Iraqi refugees fled the rising violence. Fewer than 200,000 Iraqis remained in Syria in 2012, according to the office of the Iraqi ambassador in Damascus. Many of the Iraqis were helped to return to Iraq by the provision of free flights and bus tickets, paid for by the Iraqi government. Tens of thousands of Iraqi families traveled back to their original country, although Iraq is itself unstable, and sectarian bomb attacks occur there almost daily.[18]
      The majority of Iraqis fleeing back from Syria in 2012 were Shiites, according to, a spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration. The UN refugee agency said Iraqis in the mainly Shiite Damascus suburb of Sayeda Zeinab were fleeing not only increasing violence but “targeted threats” against them. In July 2012, the most intense fighting of the 17-month-old Syrian conflict began. Rebels took over whole neighborhoods of the Syrian capital, and government forces responded ferociously. Amid the fighting, it appears rebel fighters specifically targeted Iraqis. According to the UN, an Iraqi family of seven was killed at gunpoint in their Damascus apartment. 23 Iraqi refugees were reported killed in July, some by beheaded, according to the Washington-based Shiite Rights Watch. The attacks reflect the sectarian nature of Syria’s war, In which opposition mostly from the country’s Sunni majority has risen up against the regime of Syrian President Assad, which is controlled by members of the Shiite/Alawite sect. Motives for attacks against Iraqi refugees are unclear, but may be due to antagonism towards Shiites generally, because of their sectarian association with the regime, or because Iraq's Shiite-led government is perceived as siding with Assad. Though Baghdad has publicly vowed not to become involved with Syria’s war, skeptics believe it is at least helping Iran ship weapons and reinforcements to Assad’s regime. In March, the U.S. urged Baghdad to cut off its airspace to flights headed to Syria from Iran, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pledged to curb arms smuggling across his borders into Syria.

  3. Muslim against Muslim. The United States has advertisements on television showing people from Syria that are in need of food and medicine. And that we should donate money to help these people of Syria because of the war. How come there is no mention of the Palestinian refugees that were unable to leave Syria and are now still being held against there will – no food or medicine is allowed in-if anyone including women and children are seen scrimmaging looking for anything to eat they are shot ,or shot at- women and children are eating cats and dogs when they can find them, 127 have died from starvation so far-and that is Syria's war tactic and they are facing that war crime among others.

  4. According to figures released by the anti-settler group Peace Now, the construction of 1,708 new homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem began between January and June 2013, compared with 995 in the same period last year.

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