Former PM Benjamin Netanyahu in May 2015 visits IDF field hospital that treats Syrians wounded in civil war. (Kobi Gideon/GPO) (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Netanyahu IDF field hospital Syrians

The Palestinian leaders appear more concerned about the return of the Assad regime to the Arab League than the return of tens of thousands of displaced Palestinians to their homes in Syria.

By Khaled Abu Toameh, The Gatestone Institute

Palestinian leaders never miss an opportunity to condemn Israel and accuse it of committing “crimes” against the Palestinians. This is in the context of the ongoing virulent Palestinian campaign of incitement against Israel.

The Palestinian leaders, however, remain oblivious to the suffering of their people in some Arab countries, especially Syria, where more than 4,100 Palestinians have been killed during the fighting between the Syrian army and the opposition or died as a result of torture, starvation and medical negligence over the past decade. These leaders are also most likely afraid that their Arab brothers would punish them if they speak out against the atrocities committed against Palestinians in the Arab countries.

Human rights organizations have described the Syrian practices and measures against the Palestinians as a “catastrophe” and “massacres.” They pointed out that since the eruption of the civil war in Syria in 2011, tens of thousands of Palestinians have been arrested or displaced.

The “crimes” against the Palestinians in Syria do not, unfortunately, seem to be at the top of the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) priority list. Worse, the PA leadership is currently trying to curry favor with Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose security forces are accused of killing, wounding, arresting and displacing tens of thousands of Palestinians.

The PA leadership’s attempt to restore its ties with the Assad regime has drawn sharp, widespread and harsh criticism from many Palestinians and Syrians. They say they cannot grasp the logic of reconciling with an Arab leader who has so much Palestinian blood on his hands.

Earlier this month, a delegation representing the ruling Fatah faction headed by PA President Mahmoud Abbas visited Damascus, where its members met with Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad. The delegation, headed by Fatah Secretary-General Jibril Rajoub, handed the minister a letter from Abbas to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The letter “affirmed the depth of the historic relations between the two sides and [Abbas’s] desire to strengthen relations between the State of Palestine and the Arab Republic of Syria.”

Rajoub later announced that Abbas was planning to visit Damascus soon to meet with Assad. Rajoub was also quoted as saying that a decision to suspend Syria’s membership in the Arab League was “shameful.” The decision was taken in 2011 by the Arab League in response to Syria’s failure to end its bloody and violent crackdown on anti-Assad protesters.

Rajoub’s support for the reinstatement of Syria’s membership in the Arab League and the PA leadership’s efforts to normalize its ties with the Assad regime drew sharp criticism from many Palestinians and Syrians.

Commenting on Rajoub’s statements, Syrian cartoonist Ammar Agha Al-Kala wrote:

“The shame is that 14 million [Syrians and Palestinians] have been displaced. The shame is that 1.5 million people have been killed.”

Palestinian-Syrian writer and journalist Suad Qatanani remarked:

“Mahmoud Abbas will visit the one (Assad) who starved and killed Palestinians in Yarmouk refugee camp (near Damascus). Will he ask Assad why he destroyed the Palestinian camps and displaced their people? Will he ask Assad about those who were killed in Syrian detention? Will he ask Assad about the fate of the Palestinians who disappeared in Syrian prisons?”

According to the London-based Action Group For Palestinians of Syria (AGPS), a human rights watchdog that monitors the situation of Palestinian refugees in war-torn Syria, 1,458 Palestinians from Yarmouk have been killed since 2011. This includes 496 who died due to shelling of the camp, 208 who died from starvation or medical neglect due to the siege by the Syrian army and 215 tortured to death in Syrian prisons. According to a recent report by AGPS:

“Yarmouk camp is considered one of the most affected areas in Syria as a result of the siege imposed by the Syrian army and its loyal forces since 2013, while water and electricity were completely cut off for the population in 2014, and the entry of food, medical and other items was also prohibited.”

“War crimes and crimes against humanity have been carried out against Palestinian and Syrian civilians in Yarmouk, which is under brutal siege by Syrian government forces,” Amnesty International revealed in 2014. Residents told the human rights group that they had not eaten fruit or vegetables for many months, while others said they had resorted to eating cats and dogs.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) pointed out that before the civil war in Syria, Yarmouk camp was home to nearly 160,000 Palestinians. Today, the number of residents living in the camp is estimated at 3,000. In 2018, it was estimated that 60% of the camp had been destroyed by the Syrian army and pro-Assad militias.

During their visit to Syria, the Palestinian delegation members attended a rally in Yarmouk camp to mark the 57th anniversary of the launch of Fatah’s first terrorist attack against Israel.

Commenting on the visit, Palestinian-Syrian lawyer and writer Ayman Abo Hashem wrote:

“The visit of the Fatah delegation to Damascus and the [Fatah] rally held on the ruins of Yarmouk camp are a stab in the back of all the Palestinian and Syrian victims whose homes were destroyed and who were killed, arrested, and displaced by the Assad regime’s criminal regime. Palestine refuses to be associated with leaders who turn a blind eye to its tragedies and care only about their interests.”

The Fatah delegation that visited Damascus has faced severe criticism and widespread condemnation from Palestinians and Syrians for ignoring the “tragedy” of the Palestinians in Syria and not including it in the discussions with Syrian government officials, AGPS reported on January 8, adding:

“A number of Palestinian activists expressed outrage at Fatah’s and the Palestinian Authority’s neglect and marginalization of the tragedy of the Palestinians in Syria and their lack of sense of responsibility towards it… The activists said that the Palestinian leadership works for its own interests, forgetting the pain of their people and displaying indifference to their suffering.”

‘Great Resentment by the Palestinians’

Samer, a Palestinian from Yarmouk, told AGPS:

“This complete disregard [for the plight of the Palestinians in Syria] was accepted with great resentment by the Palestinians, who no longer have confidence in the leadership that undervalues them and wants to achieve its own political gains at the expense of its people.”

Noting that 620 Palestinians have died of torture in Syrian prisons and detention centers since 2011, AGPS pointed out that the Palestinians of Syria urged the Palestinian embassy in Damascus dozens of times to intervene to release Palestinians held by the Syrian regime and halt the siege of Yarmouk camp and the repeated attacks on Palestinian camps, especially air raids and barrel bombardments. Their appeals went unheeded.

Palestinian activist Abu Mustafa al-Qaoud said that the Palestinian leadership has never used its relations with the Syrian regime to serve the interests of the Palestinians in Syria. “The Palestinian Authority has failed to secure the release of one Palestinian [from Syrian detention] or the return of one displaced family to its home,” al-Qaoud complained.

For now, it seems that the Palestinian leadership is ignoring not only the “tragedies” of its people in Syria, but even the complaints about the failure of the Palestinian officials to raise the issue with the Syrian government.

The Palestinian leadership apparently does not want to assume any responsibility for its people in the Arab world because that would mean spending money on them and providing them with various services. Palestinian leaders would, it seems, rather keep the money for themselves than assist their own people.

The Palestinian leaders appear more concerned about the return of the Assad regime to the Arab League than the return of tens of thousands of displaced Palestinians to their homes in Syria. These leaders know that it is far easier — and far safer — to condemn Israel than to demand that Assad cease committing atrocities against the Palestinians. Spewing hatred against Israel has no price tag attached. Criticizing an Arab dictator, by contrast, can prove costly in the extreme.

Khaled Abu Toameh is an award-winning journalist based in Jerusalem.

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