Palestinians rally for besieged brethren in Syria's Yarmouk camp

At least 28 Palestinians have died in Yarmouk refugee camp outside Damascus, which has been blockaded since July by Syria's government.

Nasser Nasser/AP
A Palestinian woman carries a banner and a piece of bread with Arabic writing that reads, 'relief them,' during a protest in solidarity with the Palestinian Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014. Spokesman Chris Gunness of the United Nations Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA, says there is 'profound civilian suffering' in Yarmouk.

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.”

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.

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