By Khaled Abu Toameh, Gatestone—
It seems as though the international community has forgotten that Palestinians can be found far beyond the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. These “other” Palestinians live in Arab countries such as Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, and their many serious grievances are evidently of no interest to the international community. It is only Palestinians residing in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that garner international attention. Why? Because it is precisely these individuals that the international community wield as a weapon against Israel.
Nearly 3,500 Palestinians have been killed in Syria since the beginning of the civil war in 2011. But because these Palestinians were killed by Arabs, and not Israelis, this fact is not news in the mainstream media. This figure was revealed last week by the London-based Action Group For Palestinians of Syria (AGPS), founded in 2012 with the goal of documenting the suffering of the Palestinians in that country and preparing lists of victims, prisoners and missing people in order to submit them to the databases of human rights forums.
Yet the “human rights” forums pay scant attention to such findings. They are indeed too busy to take much notice, wholly preoccupied as they are with Israel.
By focusing their attention only on the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, these “human rights” forums continuously seek to find ways to hold Israel responsible for wrongdoing, while ignoring the crimes perpetrated by Arabs against their Palestinian brothers. This obsession with Israel, which sometimes reaches ridiculous heights, does a great disservice to the Palestinian victims of Arab crimes.
If you take some numbers, according to AGPS, 85 Palestinians were killed in Syria in the first year of the civil war in 2011. The following year, the number rose to 776. The year 2013 saw the highest number of Palestinian victims: 1,015. In 2014, the number of Palestinians who were killed in Syria was 724. The following year, 502 Palestinians were killed. And since the beginning of this year (until July), some 200 Palestinians were killed in Syria.
How were these Palestinians killed? The group says that they were killed as a result of direct shelling, armed clashes, torture in prison, bombings, and as a result of the besieging of their refugee camps in Syria.
Yet the plight of its people in Syria does not seem to top the list for the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah. Pride of place on that list goes to assigning blame to Israel for everything the PA itself has caused. For PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his senior officials in the West Bank, the Palestinians in Syria simply do not rate. In fact, in a step that boggles the mind, the PA leadership is currently seeking to improve its relations with the Assad regime in Syria — the very regime that is killing, imprisoning and torturing scores of Palestinians on a daily basis.
In a move that has enraged many Palestinians in Syria, the Palestinian Authority recently celebrated the inauguration of a new Palestinian embassy in Damascus. “They [the PA leadership] have sold the Palestinians in Syria and reconciled with the Syrian regime,” remarked a Palestinian from Syria.
Another Palestinian commented: “Now we know why several PLO delegations have been visiting Syria recently; they sought to renew their ties with the regime and not ensure the safety of our refugee camps or seek the release of Palestinians held in [Syrian] prisons.”
Others accused the Palestinian Authority leadership of “sacrificing the blood of Palestinians.” They pointed out that the Syrian regime, by permitting the opening of the new embassy, was rewarding the PA for turning its back on the plight of the Palestinians of Syria. The Palestinians complained that PA diplomats and representatives in Damascus, to whom they appealed in the past for help, have ignored their calls.
International media outlets regularly report on the “water crisis” in Palestinian towns and villages, especially in the West Bank. This is a story that repeats itself almost every summer, when some foreign journalists set out to search for any story that reflects negatively on Israel. And there is nothing more comfortable than holding Israel responsible for the “water crisis” in the West Bank.
But how many Western journalists have cared to inquire about the thirsty Palestinians of Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria? Does anyone in the international community know that this camp has been without water supply for more than 720 days? Or that the camp has been without electricity for the past three years?
Yarmouk, which is located only eight kilometers from the center of Damascus, is the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria. That is, it was the largest camp. In June 2002, 112,000 Palestinians lived in Yarmouk. By the end of 2014, the camp population had been decimated to less than 20,000. Medical sources say many of the residents of the camp are suffering from a host of diseases.
These figures are alarming, but not to the Palestinian Authority leadership or mainstream media and “human rights” organizations in the West. Nor is the alarm bell struck concerning the more than 12,000 Palestinians languishing in Syrian prisons, without the right to see a lawyer or family members. These include 765 children and 543 women. According to Palestinian sources, some 503 Palestinian prisoners have died under torture in recent years.
Sources say that some of the Palestinian female prisoners have been raped by their interrogators and guards. Huda, a 19-year-old girl from Yarmouk, said she became pregnant after being repeatedly gang-raped while she was held in Syrian prison for 15 days. “Sometimes, they used to rape me more than 10 times a day,” Huda recounted, adding that as a result she suffered severe bleeding and lost consciousness. She also told an hour-long story of how she was held in a cell for three weeks with the bodies of other prisoners who had been tortured to death.
Such stories rarely make it to the pages of major newspapers in the West. Nor are these stories discussed at conferences held by various international human rights organizations, or even the United Nations. The only Palestinian prisoners the world talks about are those incarcerated by Israel. The Palestinian Authority leadership never misses an opportunity to call for the release of Palestinians held by Israel, most of whom are suspected of or have been found guilty of terrorism. But when it comes to the thousands who are being tortured in Syria, the PA leaders in Ramallah are deadly silent. For the sake of accuracy, it is worth mentioning that the Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas have sometimes contacted the Syrian authorities regarding prisoners — but it turns out that the two groups were just seeking the release of some of their members.
Reports from Syria say that three Palestinian refugee camps remain under strict siege by the Syrian army and its puppet Palestinian groups. Yarmouk, for instance, has been under siege for more than 970 days, while the Al-Sabinah refugee camp has been under siege for more than 820 days. The Handarat camp has been facing the same fate for over 1000 days. Most of the residents of these camps have been forced to flee their homes. In Yarmouk, 186 Palestinians have died of starvation or lack of medical attention. More than 70% of the Daraa camp has been completely destroyed due to recurring shelling by the Syrian army and other militias.
The Palestinians of Syria would have been more fortunate had they been living in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. Then the international community and media would certainly have noticed them. Yet when Western journalists lavish time on Palestinians delayed at Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank, and ignore barrels of explosives dropped by the Syrian military on residential areas in refugee camps in Syria, one might start to wonder what they are really about.
Khaled Abu Toameh, an award-winning journalist, is based in Jerusalem.