The population of the Palestinian refugee camp in Yarmouk, on the southern outskirts of Damascus, was once around 200,000 people. A brutal siege by the Syrian regime and an occupation by fighters from the al Qaida arm in Syria and the Islamic State dramatically reduced that number to 18,000 in March. Now, it is somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 people, according to journalist Patrick Strickland.
Yarmouk is one of 13 Palestinian refugee camps in Syria. These are camps with people who are prohibited from returning to Israel because of the ongoing military occupation. As a result, hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war are finding themselves in camps terrorized by ISIS-sympathizing militants and al Qaida-sympathizing militants.
Refugees struggle to find food, even stray animals they can eat. Families risk contracting typhoid as outbreaks occur. Palestinian leaders in the camps face an ongoing threat of assassination from militants, who have invaded the camps.
As Strickland describes, Palestinians are caught in the crossfire. This is kind of the story of Palestinians—their lives and futures perpetually in someone else’s hands.
This week on “Unauthorized Disclosure,” Strickland, who is an independent journalist and contributor to The Electronic Intifada and Al Jazeera English, talks to us from Beirut, Lebanon. He discusses his reporting on the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, a Palestinian refugee camp which has been under siege. He talks to us about the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon. Strickland also describes how ISIS and Nusra are taking over some of these refugee camps.
In the second half, during the discussion part of the show, hosts Rania Khalek and Kevin Gosztola highlight the refugee crisis in Europe and, separately, how President Barack Obama’s administration has fought to continue detaining refugee mothers and children from Central America. We also talk about North Dakota becoming the first state, where drones can be weaponized with tear gas or tasers, the FBI setting up a cell phone surveillance system in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and the latest appalling aspects of the Obama administration’s effort to keep a gravely ill Guantanamo prisoner detained indefinitely.
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Below are some highlights from this week’s interview with Patrick Strickland:
—”Yarmouk was thrust back into the media again about a week and a half ago when the UN agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA, first got access to Yalda—it’s in southern Damascus—for the first time since I believe June 8. UNRWA hasn’t had access to the actual camp, and residents who are still in the camp since March 27, that was shortly before the Islamic State militant group occupied large swaths of that camp. Somewhere around 90% of the camp they controlled for a while until most of its fighters withdrew, but they still do maintain a presence there. And to make all of that worse, that all just comes on the heels of a very long siege imposed on the camp by the government of Bashar al Assad and his military forces, which has pushed many Palestinians basically to the brink of starvation and past.”
—”About a year and a half ago or two years, we first heard reports that Palestinians were resorting to eating stray animals and whatever they could get their hands on, as there was no food or medicine coming into the camp. And now, we’ve heard that they’ve been eating grass and other things as food doesn’t make it into the camp. Nothing makes it into the camp without the approval of the Syrian regime. So, now, what you have is a situation in which where they’re stuck between a brutal regime, which is attacking people across the country—not just Palestinians, Syrians as well obviously. More than 240,000 [are] dead so far. But also, on the other side, you have groups like ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra, which is the Syrian arm of al Qaida which controls an entrance to the camp and large parts of the camp.”
—”Most recently, the camp was hit by a typhoid outbreak, and within a matter of a week, the number of cases tripled. The last number is something like 11 in the first day, but then it went up to over 50 within a couple days. Yet again, you have a situation where people are totally stuck without access to humanitarian aid. The UN can do very, very little to help. They are only able to help people in Yalda, which is not actually in the camp.”
—”In Lebanon, compared to the way the Palestinian refugee camps were in Syria before, it’s comparably worse. Palestinians here are banned from at least 70 professions, are largely forced to work menial labor, like the under-the-table labor (stuff like construction). They’re banned from studying certain subjects. They’re totally restricted in every way. Some of the camps, not all of them but some of them, are closed camps, like I’m at Ain al-Hilweh, which means there are checkpoints all around the camp controlled by the Lebanese military. If you want to come and go, it’s all at the whim of the soldier at the checkpoint—not unlike the Israeli occupation of Palestine.”
—”Today, what you have in Ain al-Hilweh…there’s been very intense fighting there between various Palestinian factions, who make up the Palestinian Joint Security Force and that includes Fatah, Hamas, some leftist factions such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Palestine, the Democratic Front for Liberation of Palestine and then various other parties as well that are smaller in movements. And then, on the other side, you have Jund al-Shem (Soldiers of the Levant), who are a Salafist group that have been at war with many of the secular and nationalist groups in the camp for years now and have launched a campaign of assassinations against Palestinian political leaders, activists, and civil society leaders in the camp.” (More background from Strickland can be found here.)
—”All of the noise that happens in the media whenever there’s something that happens to Palestinian refugees—Nobody ever mentions the one real solution. They talk about humanitarian solutions. They never mention the one real solution, which is that Palestinians would never be in this situation if they were allowed to go back to their homes in historical Palestine where they’ve been evicted by the Israeli occupation since 1948. Of course, that’s enshrined in international law and so it’s a pretty simple solution.”