The Death of Palestine: Two Years of Siege in Yarmouk

On December 16, two years ago, there was a rumbling in the skies above the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk. It was the roar of Bashar al Assad's MiG fighter jets. In a glimpse of what would eventually become commonplace, the aerial bombing targeted a hospital, a mosque and a school, slaughtering dozens in the process. The very next day, oppositional fighters entered the refugee camp.

There is of course much more to the story, the context that surrounds this particular slaughter, all that happened before those jets rained devastation on Yarmouk. There are the protests, the long disputes about the camps neutrality, the regime allied PFLP-GC's occupation of the camp. There is also the aftermath: the bombings, the arrests, the harassment and the siege, the calamitous siege, which began the day the rebels entered the camp and will soon reach its two-year anniversary.

The PFLP-GC acting on behalf of the Assad regime has essentially enforced the siege. It began as a partial one. At first, there were only some restrictions on of what entered and left the camp. But on July 18 2013, the siege evolved into a full blockage.

At least 135 Palestinians have died directly from the siege. It was the cruelty of starvation that initially haunted the camp. However, the protruding misery in Yarmouk today is a result of a drought manufactured by the Syrian regime since June 2014. It has aggravated the already extensive suffering of the 18,000 or so Palestinians that remain trapped inside the camp. Yarmouk has been without water for over 90 days.

There are at least 1020 Palestinians who have died from the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk. According to the Action Group for Palestinians in Syria, the deaths of Palestinians from Yarmouk account for 40 percent of all Palestinian deaths in Syria, estimated at around 2500 in total.

Yarmouk, the capital of the diaspora, lay in ruins.

What is understated in even this grim evaluation is that much more than the camp itself is at stake. Yarmouk stands as a kind of historic curiosity, an exception to the numerous massacres Palestinians have endured over the years. Not because it is uniquely brutal, Palestinian history ensures that that particular distinction be almost unattainable. What makes it stand out is the lack of public reaction many Palestinians have had to this catastrophe. There has been a decidedly muted response and coverage of the slaughter of this segment of Palestinians. Additionally, there has been a tacit accommodation of those who blatantly cheerlead for the culprits of this siege. The gamble represented with this silence, this neutrality, contains a much broader calamity. The destruction of the Yarmouk refugee camp signals a severe, perhaps unprecedented, disruption in Palestinian collectivity.

Nidal Bitari, a sociologist from Yarmouk, believes that this disruption may be a symptom of the Oslo era. "I am not shocked at all with the positions of some Palestinians toward Yarmouk camp. I still believe that what I concluded in my masters thesis holds true, that the destruction of the Palestinian political system, the collapse of the social structure of Palestinian groups in Palestine and the diaspora, is a consequence of Oslo, when the uniting social and political values of the Palestinian people were dismantled on a large scale. New values were formulated to fit the new political landscape, dividing the shared ambition of Palestinians into different goals, separate ones for each one of the varied Palestinian groups in Palestine and the diaspora."

The analysis that Nidal prescribes may help us understand the underlying framework. However, it does not absolve the moral and intellectual shortcomings that have stalked the discourse around the collapse of Palestinian society in Syria.

The subject of culpability has been a central one. It has unraveled alliances and been a strong point of contention among Palestinians and their proclaimed allies. As a result, large segments have skirted the issue by simply pointing to all parties. The issue with that of course is that it relies on the familiar method of drawing false equivalence, the same one that ignites outrage when employed about Gaza. The fact of the matter is that the question of fault cannot be elided, no matter how uncomfortable and contentious it is. To make matters more difficult, there is not a consensus of opinion from the Palestinians of Syria that can be offered to settle the matter. And though my interviews and interactions with Palestinians from Syria have led me to conclusions of my own, there is really no need for a consensus at all to make the case about whom is the primary culprit behind the destruction of the camp.

The siege on Yarmouk, the issue of who is at fault, boils down to one essential point: the practice of collective punishment. Either one opposes this cruel practice, whether in Gaza or Yarmouk, or they don't. Neither the complexities of Yarmouk nor the crimes of the opposition, of which there have been many, alter that basic point.

The immediate impulse is then to respond to these ongoing tragedies with skepticism about what can even be done to help. And the truth of the matter is that all this has not been a preface to an innovative solution that I have been waiting to unveil. I don't have the answer. But I do know that all the answers that we, Palestinians, have for that same question regarding our homeland didn't just appear overnight. It took years of deliberation. We will never be able to do the same, to formulate a remedy for Palestinian in Syria, while we continue to hesitate to acknowledge or publically highlight their anguish and those who are tormenting them.

It is also worth noting that the siege of Yamouk began to ease, that aid began to enter, around the time that it fell under international spotlight. It would be foolish to presume that this was a coincidence. The Assad dynasty relies heavily on the idea of Palestine in its propaganda. The very least that Palestinians outside Syria can do is publically and continuously deny the Syria regime use of Palestine as a shield in their slaughter of Palestinians.

Unfortunately, the truth is that many Palestinians from Syria have already noted the tepid reaction to their anguish. "Of course we've seen how many Palestinians aren't speaking about our crisis," Hakem Saied from Yarmouk News Agency explains, "most people in the camp blame the Palestinian factions the most for what has happened. They have not done anything to help us. But many Palestinians that aren't even in factions have also not said a lot about the siege. We know that if this were happening in Palestine the reactions would have been stronger. We know this and it bothers us a lot."

Palestinians cannot wait until the siege of Yarmouk has passed before reacting publically and with clarity about its tormentors. We have to do more than mourn in retrospect. None of this is meant to suggest that Yarmouk can be resolved with our involvement. It is only to say that we must speak about it with the same fervor that we do about other Palestinian deaths.

What is certain, however, is that any further delay risks alienating the Palestinians of Syria. It will carve itself irreparably into the Palestinian consciousness, amputating any remaining sense of collectivity. To our horror, we may one day come to find that it was us who authored this final fragmentation of Palestine.​