When Talal Derki began filming “Return to Homs,” he imagined a happy ending: a victorious popular uprising against Syria's regime. But, mirroring events on the ground, the documentary inevitably took a dark turn.
“We believed in the beginning if we showed what is happening, something will change. But there is no need to tell the world what is happening in Syria. They know. So we decided to make this video like a personal album,” the Syrian director told an audience at the 33rd Istanbul Film Festival this week.
Filmed between August 2011 and May 2013, the documentary takes place in Syria's third largest city, Homs. It kicks off with two young characters: media activist Osama al-Homsi and Abdel Basset Sarut, a football goalkeeper who wins the hearts of protesters with his witty anti-regime songs.
The two friends find common cause in their determination to expose and topple the Bashar al-Assad regime. Mr. Homsi begins filming the largely peaceful protests that put Homs on the map as the “capital of the revolution.” The Syrian Army rolls in with tanks and demolish homes in two flashpoint neighborhoods, including those of the main characters.
As the uprising develops, their paths diverge. In the face of violent massacres, Homsi holds onto his camera while Mr. Sarut despairs and turns to violence.
Homsi keeps shooting in the “optimistic” belief, the director says, that his images of massacred children and bombings would spur the world to action. He is later critically wounded and then detained on the Syrian-Lebanese border, and his fate is unknown.
“The hardest thing is the people we lost while filming them,” Derki told The Christian Science Monitor. Backup characters and cameramen had to be lined up in case more crew members were lost during the shoot.
Citizens turned revolutionaries
Against impossible odds, Sarut survives. He forms a brigade with his friends to protect families trapped in besieged areas of Homs. Cameraman Qahtan Hassoun – whose trip to Istanbul for the festival was his first outside Syria – shadows the two citizens turned revolutionaries.
What sets Sarut apart is his gift of song, impossible charisma, and suicidal sense of courage. The same defiant tunes he sang during protests weave together later scenes of destruction and harrowing loss.
“I am tired, man,” he confesses to the camera, sitting between two thin walls as artillery shells rain down.
“We were there heart to heart as the army pounded all around us,” recalls cameraman Hassoun, who calls Sarut "a symbol of the revolution, a symbol of Syria. No one recognized them. No one sent them help."
In two years, Sarut buries his closest friends and four brothers. Delirious after his tendons are blown apart in a failed mission to break the siege, he sobs: “For God's sake, do not let the martyr's blood go in vain. Kill me, but just open a way (for the families trapped in Homs.)”
Out of 75 of Sarut's followers, only 10 survived, Hassoun says.
“It is not an earthquake. It is not a natural disaster. People should know there are heroes,” Derki says. “There are still Syrians protecting their neighborhoods and their friends. They won't give up.”
The film – shot by Derki, Homsi, Hassoun, and Orwa Nyrabia – won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival.
Seven months after Palestinian prisoner Khaled Asakreh’s welcome-home luncheon, when a steady stream of everyone from relatives to Palestinian Authority officials stopped by to heartily congratulate him, life is quieter.
When visitors arrive on a recent evening, he is alone – a rarity for any Palestinian – in his gleaming new home, courtesy of the Palestinian Authority's strong financial support for prisoners. He has two TVs and four rooms of brand-new furniture all to himself, accompanied only by half a dozen plaques commemorating the 22 years he spent in prison. Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian fighter turned peacemaker, gazes out from one in the dining room.
But soon there will be another addition: a wife. His fiancée, recommended by sisters-in-law after Mr. Asakreh tired of women chasing his perceived wealth, is everything he wanted: educated, mature, “and of course cute.”
“Since I was engaged, my feelings, my life – everything changed,” he says, looking noticeably more radiant than when the Monitor interviewed him upon his release in August.
Asakreh is one of 104 Palestinian prisoners whom Israel agreed to release in four batches as a confidence-building measure, which US Secretary of State John Kerry hoped would lead to direct peace talks between the two sides by the end of this month. Nearly all of the prisoners were arrested before the 1993 Oslo peace accords for involvement in fatal terrorist attacks, making the government’s decision to release them highly controversial.
Now Washington’s nine-month deadline for relaunching bilateral peace talks is looming, and the release of the fourth batch of prisoners is one of the major sticking points. Israel wants a guarantee that progress toward peace talks will continue beyond the end of April before it releases the final 26 prisoners, a move the PA has called “blackmail.” The PA is threatening to bail on peace negotiations if the prisoners, who were due to be released March 29, are not set free by tomorrow.
Meanwhile, 78 prisoners, including Asakreh, are rebuilding their lives after decades in prison. They have significant help – the PA pays all prisoners a handsome monthly stipend while in prison, which continues at a higher rate after their release, and provides some dental and health care benefits. They also enjoy celebrity status in their communities.
But they are still unable to travel freely: Asakreh is limited to the Bethlehem area for the first year of his freedom, and it will be 10 years before he can travel abroad.
When Israeli army jeeps come through the village targeting kids throwing rocks, he steers clear.
“In prison I felt safe because I’m in their hands,” he says. “But now anyone can come and harass me or arrest me.”
After decades of sleeping in a prison bed so narrow that he would fall out if he rolled over, he sleeps on just a sliver of his huge new bed. And he says he and fellow prisoners find it hard at times to relate to others.
“We knew each other more than families – we spent our lives together,” he says. “From one word we understand each other, so it is difficult to cope with people outside.”
One such word is zifta – tar. In prison, they didn’t have an opportunity to walk on paved roads, and it’s something that still holds excitement for them now.
But even the clip-clop of shoes on asphalt, a sound of freedom, began to lose its ring for Asakreh this winter, as he became bored with walking the streets of Bethlehem. As the first prisoner from the area to be released by Israel in the past year, many people recognized him, but he didn’t know any of them. Editor's note: This sentence has been revised to correctly reflect Asakreh's status.
He was hoping to marry – and had the bank account to do so, unlike many Palestinian men in the area, who struggle to provide the house, furniture, and dowry that most women’s families expect. But as he met girl after girl, he became disillusioned.
“All the women and their families think I’m a rich man and I have a bucket of money,” he says. “I think it’s commercial more than love or real life. I couldn’t agree with this. I tried to find a woman who would support me.”
Now he and his fiancée are planning their future. He’s hoping for just two children, and is relatively optimistic about their future.
At the university in nearby Beit Jala where he and a few other prisoners are taking computer classes, Asakreh tries to tell the students – most of whom were born after he was convicted in 1991 for murdering French tourist Annie Ley in Bethlehem – that there is an alternative to violence.
While the students all show the prisoners respect, not all listen to his ideas.
Ultimately, he says, it’s up to the Israelis to change their mentality – though many Israelis say the same about the Palestinians.
“[PA President Mahmoud Abbas] is a good leader. There’s no other leader that can give peace like Abu Mazen,” he says, referring to the president by his nickname. Otherwise, he says, trotting out some of the Hebrew he learned in prison, chaos may ensue. “Because of that the Israeli side needs to understand very well that if Mahmoud Abbas goes, there will be a big balagan.”
Since beginning a seven-year walk around the world in Ethiopia last year, American Paul Salopek's days have been filled with the unusual: Pre-ordering alfalfa bale drops for his camel, being held at gunpoint by human traffickers in Djbouti, venturing on foot into areas of Saudi Arabia where local Bedouin had never seen a white man.
He is traveling the earliest known path of human migration, across Asia and down through the Americas, aiming to end up in Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America (see route).
Despite being a veteran foreign correspondent who covered years of war in Africa, Mr. Salopek has never taken on an assignment quite like this. But it’s a natural fit.
“This is a continuation of what I’ve been doing my whole life,” he told me last month, as we walked from the Bethlehem checkpoint through olive tree-studded hills into Jerusalem.
RECOMMENDED: The Olive Press: Finding humanity in the Middle East
Salopek’s background is as unusual and fascinating as his global adventure, shedding light not only on the craft of journalism but also the art of connecting with people from vastly different backgrounds.
“People can tell in five minutes if you care about them. You can’t fake compassion," he says.
Salopek is almost impossible to interview because he’s so busy asking questions – and listening. But eventually it comes out that he spent much of his childhood in Mexico, and dropped out of high school, though he eventually got a degree in environmental biology from the University of California at Santa Barbara.
When he wasn’t working with his hands, he was reading: everything from Moby Dick to Blade Magazine. His love of reading turned into a love of writing, and he landed an internship at National Geographic after competing in a caption contest “almost as a lark.”
He left within a short time to work at the Chicago Tribune, where after only seven months on the job he was plucky enough to ask his editors for a year off to ride a mule 1,250 miles across Mexico.
They said OK.
That was 1999. Fifteen years and quite a few African war stories later, he’s on a much greater adventure, with the support of National Geographic, the Knight Foundation, Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, and Project Zero at Harvard’s School of Education. He tends a “digital campfire” periodically on his website Out of Eden Walk, which also provides educational resources. In addition, he files regular dispatches for National Geographic.
It’s no small part of the challenge to juggle walking, blogging, writing, and fundraising. Once he partook in a conference call with 16 donors by satellite phone in Africa’s Great Rift Valley. All along the way, he’s been filling a growing stack of notebooks with the nuggets that will make the project worth funding to its completion. By the time he reached Jerusalem, they weighed 55 pounds.
But despite a year of preparation for the trek, Salopek takes little credit for the insights he’s gleaned. “It’s just nothing compared to the fragments people are carrying around in their head,” he says, rattling off a long list of local guides who have helped him along the way. “The whole objective is to work with local people who then become the windows to the place. Without someone with an intimate knowledge of landscape, I’d lose 90 percent of it.”
RECOMMENDED: The Olive Press: Finding humanity in the Middle East
The West Galilee Hospital in Nahariya is no stranger to war. Located only six miles south of the Lebanese border, it took a direct missile hit during the 2006 conflict with Hezbollah. But the Syrian war has pervaded these halls and wards in a much more personal way: through wounded Syrians, who are picked up at the border and brought here by the Israeli military for free treatment
Since the first two Syrian patients arrived nearly a year ago, the hospital has treated more than 220 Syrians, out of around 600 who have been brought to Israel. About a third of those treated in Nahariya have been children, some of whom arrived unconscious or unaccompanied by a relative.
“Something explodes and next thing, they open their eyes in a foreign country, and everyone is speaking Hebrew,” says Dr. Tsvi Sheleg, the hospital’s assistant director general. “They are in an enemy country – that’s how they see it.”
Israel has a tradition of offering humanitarian assistance in war zones and natural disasters around the world, even where it is not particularly welcome. But treating Syrians, whose country is still officially at war with Israel, is not only a logistical miracle but an extraordinary exercise in humanity trumping hate.
"It's important as a human being to be able to help others as a human being. I thank my government … that gives us the opportunity to help each other," says Director-General Masad Barhoum, who oversees the government hospital. "They are human beings. I don't believe that anyone in this hospital believes they are enemies."
The Syrian patients generally come to a similar conclusion.
“At first they were frightened ... they thought we would harm them and torture them,” says Yoav Hoffman, senior physician in the pediatric intensive care unit, which has treated about 25 children, ranging in age from a few months to 17 years old. “Then after a few days they understood what we were doing and they didn't want to leave.”
Hospital staff don’t know whether they’re treating civilians or soldiers, and they say they’re not sure whether the Israeli army knows either. Some patients offer their own accounts, though there is no way of verifying them.
Dr. Jean Sustiel in the neurosurgery department says one man claimed he had been a bodyguard of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but decided to switch sides and fight with the rebels. But his fellow rebels began to suspect him of being an Assad spy and shot and wounded him.
“He didn’t want to go back because he was wanted by both sides,” says Dr. Sustiel. “So he wanted to be transferred back to Jordan.”
The doctors say they know little to nothing about how the Syrian patients are picked up and transferred back to the border, a process that is handled by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). But there appears to be significant cross-border communication involved, potentially mediated by United Nations forces stationed along the border, especially since doctors say some children arrived alone and the IDF was able to track down a relative and bring them to the hospital within a short time.
Some analysts have speculated that such channels of communication may also be helping Israel to keep the more extremist jihadi and salafi groups in Syria away from its border.
But for doctors at the West Galilee Hospital, the mission is detached from geopolitics.
In Dr. Hoffman’s unit, a 3-year-old girl stands quivering on a table as her father embraces her. Both were injured in what he says was a cluster-bomb attack in Deraa, the southern city roughly 25 miles from Israel where the uprising began three years ago. He breaks down in tears as he tells of the attack, in which the girl’s twin brother was killed, but manages to add, “The treatment here is really excellent.”
But the doctors and staff say it’s not just about offering medical care. They also bring clothes, toys, and games from their own homes to give to the Syrian patients, including dolls and teddy bears for the children. One girl wanted so badly to see the Mediterranean Sea that the hospital worked with the Israeli military to bring her west to the beach before heading back east to the border.
The hospital’s willingness to help has brought in heartfelt letters and donations from Muslims in Israel and the US. One mosque in nearby Acre sent $1,000 collected during prayers, and individual American Muslims have written to thank the hospital for helping when Arab countries have done so little, says Amir Yarchi of Friends of the Western Galilee Hospital, who heads up fundraising efforts.
“When you think about the extent of casualties in Syria … we are dealing with one drop in the ocean,” says Sustiel. “But there is an old Jewish saying – when you have saved one soul you have saved an entire world, so this is what we hope we are doing.”
At the main entrances of Ramallah stand big red signs warning Israelis that it is dangerous and against Israeli law to enter the city – a holdover from the second intifada, when two Israeli reservists who strayed into the city were lynched by an angry mob.
But Israel made an exception on Sunday, allowing 300 Israeli students and youth leaders to visit the Palestinian presidential compound. In what one Israeli newspaper described as the largest gathering of Israelis in Ramallah since a 2002 military operation, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addressed the eager audience and fielded their questions.
The visit, originally scheduled for December but postponed due to a severe snowstorm, was organized by the OneVoice movement and member of Knesset Hilik Bar, who previously led a delegation of Israeli lawmakers to visit Mr. Abbas.
While Abbas is not known for being particularly charismatic, both supporters and critics of the event seemed to agree that he presented a more lively side to his young listeners. “For Israeli students in Ramallah, Abbas was a rock star,” the centrist Times of Israel declared, while a critical column from the right-wing outlet Arutz Sheva said the president’s speech was “anything but bland.”
Abbas, like his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu, has been involved in intensive discussions with US Secretary of State John Kerry about resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the past nine months. He addressed a number of obstacles in his speech Sunday, including Palestinian refugees, Palestinian and Israeli incitement, a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem, and control of holy sites in Jerusalem.
Among the more notable points, he said he could envision a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem without needing to physically divide the city – something many Israelis are opposed to – and said he has no intention of flooding Israel with millions of Palestinian refugees that would change the demographic makeup of the country. He did, however, condemn Israeli settler violence and say that under Palestinian rule Jews would not be allowed to visit the Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount complex, where the Second Temple once stood.
Such points, as well as discrepancies between his largely conciliatory message and his recent words to Palestinian audiences, led to some pushback.
Arutz Sheva, which is headquartered in the Israeli settlement of Beit El adjacent to Ramallah, criticized Abbas’s “breathtaking double-talk, historic revisionism and sugar-coated incitement – executed with a charm that was almost endearing.” Hamas also slammed the meeting, saying it only served Israel’s interest.
Although some students were left with more questions than they brought to the meeting, and others said they wished they could have roved the streets of Ramallah afterward, organizers deemed the event a success. Mr. Bar called on Mr. Netanyahu to reciprocate by hosting 300 Palestinian students in Jerusalem.
Growing up, our tiny black-and-white TV stayed in the closet except for one quadrennial event, which we watched nightly: the Olympics.
So I wasn’t about to break the tradition just because I’m living in the Middle East.
But finding a way to watch the Sochi Olympics from Jerusalem proved to be an Olympic challenge – and an urgent one, since my former cross-country skiing teammate Kikkan Randall was coming into the Games as a medal favorite in today’s individual sprint. If she made the podium, it would be the first-ever Olympic medal for US women in the sport – a moment that the US ski community had been looking forward to for decades.
RECOMMENDED: How much do you know about the Winter Olympics?
By the opening day of the Olympics this weekend, I still hadn’t found a way to watch the Games. Instead of settling in for the familiar NBC anthem, once the soundtrack for my own Olympic dreams, I was digging into a hearty Palestinian dinner with friends in a village outside Bethlehem. As we peeled savory chicken off the bone and scooped delicious stuffed peppers into our mouths, the muted TV showed nonstop coverage of Mecca pilgrims milling around the Kaaba.
When our host picked up the remote and started flipping through the channels, I secretly hoped to see a figure skater’s triple axel, or – even better – the stars and stripes of American ladies charging up the cross-country trails. Instead, we landed on Al Jazeera, muted it, and continued our lively discussion about everything from Palestinian arranged marriages to Islamic perspectives on 9/11.
The next day, I hit multiple dead-ends in my Olympic pursuit. The local Israeli sport channel offered a Hebrew-language explanation of luge dynamics, but somehow I find it hard to trust explanations of physics on ice in a language that originated in the desert; when I did check back for live coverage, they were featuring European basketball. I found out about a free app for fans in countries not covered by the mega-monopolies like NBC, which paid a record $4.38 billion for the right to ensure a complete lock on US Olympic coverage from 2014-20, but my iPhone informed me that it was only available in the Uganda iTunes store.
With the help of a generous friend back in the US, and a little cyber trickery to mask the fact that we were in Israel, we managed to get NBC’s online streaming working yesterday. It really wasn’t the same, watching replays on my husband’s little laptop in the silence of our living room – no family, no teammates, no friends joining in our excitement. People here seemed vaguely aware, at best, that it was Olympics time.
But for me, the Olympics has become not so much a place or a period in time but an idea.
As I went for an early morning run this morning amid the olive trees and rocky slopes of Jerusalem, carpeted not by snow but a tinge of bright-green spring and red anemones, I thought about how the motto “faster, higher, stronger” expands well beyond the bounds of Olympic stadiums, even to this troubled corner of the world. If there is any place in the world where long-held aspirations have not yet realized their full promise, it is arguably the Middle East.
So whether it’s a demand for grace as people of opposing viewpoints talk through difficult issues, or for persistent hope amid decades of inertia, or for courage amid deep insecurities, there are plenty of Olympic opportunities here.
I’ll be watching the cross-country events faithfully over the next few weeks, because I’m confident that even though Randall missed a medal today she has a good shot in other events. But I’ll also be looking for new opportunities to recognize and savor the Olympic spirit right here. Maybe even over delicious chicken, surrounded by Palestinian friends showering us with Olympic hospitality.
RECOMMENDED: How much do you know about the Winter Olympics?
It’s 6 a.m. on Saturday, and the sun has just started to rise over the olive groves of the al-Makhrour valley, near Bethlehem, where 30 young Palestinians are decked out in running shorts and bright sneakers.
After stretching and lining up their favorite tunes on smartphones, they pose for a group picture, line up, count down, and take off along the 6-mile dirt road nestled between rolling hills.
This is the Palestine Marathon Training group, the first Palestinian running club, which was formed ahead of last year’s inaugural Right to Movement Palestine Marathon in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Inspired by the United Nations declaration that all people have the fundamental "right to movement," the marathon and weekly runs are meant to highlight – and overcome – the struggles of living under Israeli occupation.
Palestinians living in the West Bank are forbidden from entering Jerusalem or Israel without a permit, and in 2002 Israel erected a towering concrete barrier around the city, citing security concerns. Palestinians say it has had a devastating economic impact on the city and the wall has become a mental barrier as well.
Everywhere else in the world, “a running group is just a running group,” says training and marathon organizer George Zeidan, adding that last year’s marathon took runners on a four-loop course for the 26-mile race due to Israeli restrictions. “In Palestine, we run for the freedom of movement in general, and for my female friends who still cannot move freely.”
Dima Musallam reaches the finish line with a big smile and cheers from her friends. She has only been training for five months but has seen a drastic improvement since she began running with the group, which offers a refuge from Bethlehem’s jam-packed roads, full of impatient drivers prone to honking, especially at women.
“I was thinking about the race the whole time,” says Ms. Musallam, who plans to compete in the 10-km (6-mile) event on April 11. “I was thinking about my form and how I’m going to improve my time.”
Mr. Zeidan says they started with just four people, and now up to 70 people show up to any given practice. Their Facebook page has more than 500 members and includes group photos, updates, events, and practice times. Participants are mostly Palestinian, but internationals too, between the ages of 10 and 60.
Some simply take leisurely walks, while others race each other across the rocky, hilly road that leads to the terraced village of Battir.
Al-Makhrour is located in so-called “Area C” of the West Bank, under full Israeli control. Residents are subject to building and farming restrictions, and over the years, many structures and homes, lacking elusive building permits, have been demolished. Rights groups say al-Makhrour, located near the Jewish settlement of Har Gilo, is under threat of annexation by Israel.
Jessica Saba, a first-timer, was drawn to the training group for the opportunity to exercise not only her legs but Palestinian rights.
“It’s powerful,” Ms. Saba says. “The fact that it’s our land, and we’re running on it.”
Secretary of State John Kerry may take comfort in the fact that roughly half of Israelis and Palestinians are confident that their side is interested in a two-state solution and about 40 percent are willing to let him work at it. But only about 1 in 3 believe that such a solution is feasible, a new Zogby poll reveals.
It's not hard to see why. Since the 1993 Oslo Accords, the population of Israeli settlements in the West Bank has tripled, making dismantlement or evacuation of many of them much more difficult, if not impossible. On the Palestinian side, a deep rift exists between the Hamas-run Gaza Strip and the Fatah-dominated West Bank. In addition, political upheavals in the Arab world since 2011 have turned Arab leaders’ attention inwards and away from the Palestinian cause.
Amid these changing dynamics, alternative visions for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are under discussion by scholars, politicians, and activists. Some would not be palatable to political elites on either or both sides of the divide. But neither is the current impasse, according to the polling data.
Here are a few of the alternatives:
One binational state: Historic Palestine, including Israel, the West Bank, and potentially the Gaza Strip, becomes a binational state with equal rights for all. This is increasingly popular among Palestinians, who would likely become the majority within a few decades as a results of higher average birth rates. But it would challenge Israel’s identity as Jewish and democratic, because one of those criteria would have to be sacrificed to maintain the other, given the demographic trend.
Israeli annexation of West Bank settlements: Naftali Bennett, the Minister of Economy and a former settler leader, has proposed annexing Area C of the West Bank. The area, which comprises 60 percent of the West Bank, includes approximately 350,000 Israeli settlers as well as 50,000 Palestinians.
In many ways, Area C is already treated as part of Israel: Israeli phone companies provide wireless coverage and connectivity with Israel proper; Israeli car insurance (otherwise useless in the West Bank) applies there; Israeli bus lines and electric lines service the settlements; and education, construction, and environmental policies in the settlements are regulated by the Israeli government.
Bennett has called for granting full Israeli citizenship to Palestinians in the area to defuse international accusations of an apartheid state. But for Palestinians, who have already lost 78 percent of historic Palestine to Israel, losing nearly two-thirds of the remaining 22 percent is a non-starter.
Baby steps: Israel loosens its restrictions on Palestinian freedom of movement, many of which were put in place after the intifada. This allows Israelis and Palestinians to gradually get to know each other again. Palestinians would be allowed to visit the beach, while Israelis would be free to shop in Palestinian cities like Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Nablus. Peace would be built from the ground up through people-to-people interactions, rather than decided by negotiators.
Status quo: Israel and the Palestinian Authority maintain their current positions, unwilling or unable to bridge the divide between them. Israel addresses security threats with its superior military and intelligence capabilities, and maintains its system of checkpoints and permits for Palestinians, limiting their freedom of movement and commerce.
Fresh conflict: The lack of a peace deal sparks a third intifada. While there has been an uptick in terrorist incidents and clashes between Palestinians and settlers in recent months, few see a third intifada as imminent, though it remains a risk.
The death of at least 28 starving Palestinians in Syria's Yarmouk refugee camp has sparked protests across the Middle East. Fellow Palestinians are calling on the international community and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to help end a siege imposed by the Syrian Army last summer, after the camp became a hub for rebel fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and extremist Islamist groups.
For Palestinians here, who often took solace in the support of their compatriots abroad during Israeli military campaigns, a more concerted effort is needed to help Palestinian refugees caught in the brutal Syrian civil war.
“During the intifada our brothers in Yarmouk never forgot us,” says Lama Hourani, a Ramallah resident who kickstarted a campaign to raise send money to the camp. “We want to tell them we are doing the same for you; that we haven't forgotten about you.”
RECOMMENDED: Syria's refugee crisis
Before the Syrian war began, Yarmouk was home to some 150,000 registered Palestinian refugees, making it the largest Palestinian camp in Syria. In December 2012, Syrian rebels seized the camp, and it soon became a base for operations for the FSA and Islamist militants. Syrian government forces responded with air strikes, and in July imposed a siege on the area, located on the southern outskirts of Damascus. Very little food or other aid has been permitted in Yarmouk since.
Spokesman Chris Gunness of the United Nations Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA, says there is "profound civilian suffering" in Yarmouk. "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," he said in comments to media over the weekend.
Now there are only about 20,000 residents left. In recent weeks, conditions have greatly deteriorated, and many Palestinians have called on the PLO to take a more active role in helping lift the siege on the camp.
“It's important that the parties involved in the civil strife in Syria stay out of the Palestinian camps and not drag refugees into this conflict,” says Sumoud Sadat, a youth activist from Ramallah who took part in a small protest in front of the PLO's headquarters here last week.
Ahmad Majdalani, a PLO Executive Committee member said before departing for Syria last week that part of the problem is that there's no one specific party to negotiate with to ensure the steady flow of goods and medicine into the camp. “There are too many armed groups and not anyone specific that we can talk with to ensure the neutrality of the camp is maintained,” he said.
Mr. Majdalani said an agreement signed with nine armed groups to leave the camp was thwarted after four, including Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), stayed put.
Complicating the issue, some Palestinians joined the FSA, while others formed an anti-Syrian government group called Liwa al-Asifa, or Storm Brigade. Those were pitted against the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, a Palestinian group allied with the Syrian government. Majdalani has previously blamed the PFLP-General Command for embroiling the camp in the fighting.
In Gaza City, Gaza; Haifa, Israel; Amman, Jordan; and Beirut and the Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon, Palestinians took to the streets to call on the international community and humanitarian groups to help lift the siege on the camp while West Bank radio stations dedicated air time to the Yarmouk crisis. Young Palestinians from Jerusalem began a sit-in this week outside the International Committee of the Red Cross' headquarters in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, denouncing the blockade.
The ICRC must “pressure all parties in Syria to lift the siege of Yarmouk and allow food and medicine into the camp," said activist Yassin Sbeih.
If there’s one thing Israelis might agree on regarding Ariel Sharon, it’s that he always loomed large on the Israeli scene – whether in war, or on a visit to a windswept settlement, or in parliament.
But the crowds that have turned out to bid farewell to Mr. Sharon have been decidedly small. A Knesset spokesperson said 20,000 Israelis visited his coffin yesterday, though many newspapers simply said "thousands" came. The 750 chairs at his memorial weren't quite all filled, while only 1,500 were present at his burial – tiny figures compared to the 800,000 that jammed Jerusalem’s streets for the funeral of ultra-Orthodox rabbi Ovadia Yosef a few months ago.
Still, Israelis had plenty to say about Sharon’s life, legacy, and departure, which have dominated news coverage here since his passing on Saturday afternoon. Here are a few common themes, which give insight into how Israelis view Sharon, the last of the founding generation of Israel’s leaders:
RECOMMENDED: How much do you know about Israel? Take the quiz
1) He was a man of action, unlike any of the leaders we have today.
Nicknamed the “bulldozer,” Sharon was known as a man who would tackle the task before him with irresistible vigor, whether it was eating a sandwich, building a settlement in occupied territory, or invading a neighboring country. While that attitude got him in a lot of trouble, including accusations of war crimes, it also endeared him to many who today bemoan the lack of courageous leadership in Israel.
David Horovitz of the Times of Israel summarized it well:
… our leaders, when they aren’t bickering among themselves or seeking to outmaneuver each other, complain bitterly and plaintively and protractedly about the unfairness of it all — the terrible international deals with Iran, the lack of will over Syria, the exaggerated empathy for the intransigent Palestinians. Defensive, reactive, they try to muddle through, to minimize the damage, to find the least bad of the options and the courses that others are imposing upon them.
Whereas Sharon would have said two things: First, “Chevre [friends], look how far we’ve come.” And, second, “Chevre, this is what we’re going to do now. Come on. To work.”
2) He understood the limits of power, an important example for Israel to adopt now.
Sharon, perhaps more than any other Israeli general or politician, exemplified Israeli power, destroying Palestinian villages, plowing into Lebanon in 1982, and ordering Israeli military incursions into the heart of West Bank cities such as Jenin during the second intifada.
And yet he apparently came to the conclusion that such power would only carry Israel so far; that in a world that was increasingly recognizing Palestinian demands for sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel could only hold out so long.
… his transformation should have taught the Israeli right a lesson, but this didn’t happen. This was his biggest failure, though not his only one. The bravest of all couldn’t convey his concerns to his successors. On the contrary, they’re following the path of the earlier Sharon, totally ignoring the heritage of the later one.
3) He would have destroyed Israel had he continued on the course set by withdrawing from Gaza in 2005.
This viewpoint is most common among the settler movement, which Sharon had long supported by leveraging his various roles in government – from agriculture minister to housing minister – to establish and expand settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. But his decision in 2005 to withdraw from Gaza was seen by many settlers as an unforgiveable betrayal, as well as a supremely undemocratic move, as we reported in our piece about Sharon’s legacy this weekend:
“Ideologues had great ideas, but some of them couldn’t set up a tent,” says Jonathan Blass, rabbi of Neve Tzuf, who has lived in West Bank settlements since 1975. “He was always Mr. Facts On The Ground. He was the person who would get things done.”
… Many settlers bitterly resent the 2005 Gaza “expulsion” as an undemocratic move that set a dangerous precedent and undermined their willingness to trust Israeli leaders’ assurances.
“He implemented a platform that was the exact opposite of what he ran on,” says Rabbi Blass. “Everyone says – great, courageous move. It was a horrible crime against democracy…. I think he trampled Israeli democracy to the point where it’s hard to recover.”
Barak Ravid of Haaretz today wrote that leaked documents show that Sharon intended on withdrawing from much of the West Bank as well. Though the evidence he provides is inconclusive, it supports long-held suspicions that Sharon wouldn’t have stopped with the Gaza withdrawal.
Of note is that a number of Israelis have openly said that Sharon’s illness, which removed him from power, was the will of God and prevented him from damaging Israel’s interests any further, though other Israelis have rebuked them for such expressing such views.
4) He was a "butcher and terrorist."
Outside Israel, meanwhile, news of Sharon’s death elicited celebrations and the burning of his image by Palestinians and other Arabs, many of whom referred to him as a butcher and terrorist. Max Blumenthal of The Nation details their many grievances with Sharon in his piece, “How Ariel Sharon Shaped Israel’s Destiny.”
Human Rights Watch also chimed in, with Middle East and North Africa director Sarah Leah Whitson expressing regret that Sharon had never been tried for war crimes in the 1982 massacres that took place at the hands of Israeli allies in Lebanon: “It’s a shame that Sharon has gone to his grave without facing justice for his role in Sabra and Shatilla and other abuses.”
Amid all of the conflicting opinions, the title of Haaretz’s editorial may sum up the mood in Israel best: For all his flaws, Israel is poorer without leaders like Ariel Sharon.