How Yarmouk Came About: Israel's Unabashed Role in the Syrian Refugee Crisis
17 October 2015
By Ramzy Baroud
When Zionist Haganah militias carried out Operation Yiftach on 19 May, 1948,
the aim was to drive Palestinians in the northern Safad District outside the
border of Israel, which had declared its independence a mere five days
earlier. The ethnic cleansing of Safad and its many villages was not unique
to that area. In fact, it was the modus operandi of Zionist militias
throughout Palestine. Soon after Israel's independence, and the conquering of
historic Palestine, the militias were joined together to form the ''Israel
Not all villages, however, were completely depopulated. Some residents in
villages like Qaytiyya, near the River Jordan, remained in their homes.
Living between two tributaries of the Jordan — the Hasbani and Dan rivers —
the villagers hoped that normality would return to tranquil Qaytiyya once the
Their fate, however, was worse than that of those who were forced out, or who
fled for fear of what terrors the future might hold. Israeli forces returned
nearly a year later, rounded the remaining villagers into large trucks,
tortured many and dumped them somewhere south of Safad. Little is known about
what happened, but many of those who survived ended up in Yarmouk refugee
camp in Syria.
Yarmouk was not established until 1957, and even then it was not an
''official'' refugee camp. Many of its inhabitants were squatters in Sahl Al-Yarmouk
and other areas, before they were brought to Shaghour Al-Basatin, near Ghouta.
The area was renamed Yarmouk.
Many of Yarmouk's refugees originate from northern Palestine, the Safad
District and villages like Qaytiyya, Al-Ja'ouneh and Khisas. They subsisted
in that region for nearly 67 years. Unable to return to Palestine, yet hoping
to do so, they named the streets of their camp, its neighbourhoods, even its
bakeries, pharmacies and schools, after the villages from which they had been
When the Syrian uprising-turned-civil-war began in March 2011, many advocated
that Palestinians in Syria should be spared the conflict. The scars and awful
memories of other regional conflicts — the Jordan civil war, the Lebanese
civil war, the Iraq invasion of Kuwait and the US invasion of Iraq, wherein
hundreds and thousands of Palestinian civilians paid a heavy price — remained
in the hearts and minds of many. Calls for ''hiyad'' – neutrality – were not
heeded by the war's multiple parties, and the Palestinian leadership,
incompetent and clustered in Ramallah, failed to assess the seriousness of
the situation, or provide any guidance, either moral or political.
The results were horrific. Over 3,000 Palestinians were killed, tens of
thousands of Palestinian refugees fled Syria, thousands more became
internally displaced and the hopeless journey away from the homeland
continued on its horrific course.
Yarmouk used to have over 200,000 inhabitants, most of whom are registered
with the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA); the population was reduced to
less than 20,000. Much of the camp is in total ruins. Most of its residents
who have neither starved to death nor been killed in the war have fled to
other parts of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Europe.
The most natural order of things would have been the return of the refugees
to Safad and villages like Qaytiyya. Yet, few made such calls, and those
demands raised by Palestinians officials were dismissed by Israel as
non-starters. In fact while countries like Lebanon have accepted 1.72 million
refugees (one in every five people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee), Turkey
1.93 million, Jordan 629,000, Iraq 249,000, and Egypt 132,000, Israel has
made no offer to accept a single refugee.
Indeed, Israel, whose economy is the strongest in the region, has been the
most tight-fisted in terms of offering shelter to Syrian refugees. This is a
double sin considering that even Syria's Palestinian refugees, who were
expelled from their own homes in Palestine, were also left homeless for the
Not surprisingly, there was no international outrage directed at financially
able Israel for blatantly shutting its door in the face of desperate
refugees, while bankrupt Greece was rightly chastised for not doing enough to
host hundreds of thousands of refugees.
According to UN statistics, by the end of August of this year, nearly 239,000
refugees, mostly Syrians, landed on Greek islands seeking passage to mainland
Europe. Greece is not alone. Between January and August this year 114,000
landed in Italy (coming mostly from Libya), seeking safety. Around the same
time last year, almost as many refugees were recorded seeking access to
Europe is both morally and politically accountable for hosting and caring for
these refugees, considering its culpability in past Middle East wars and
ongoing conflicts. Some governments are doing exactly that, including, for
example, those in Germany and Sweden, while others, like Britain, have been
utterly oblivious of and downright callous towards refugees. Even so,
thousands of ordinary European citizens, as would any human being with an
ounce of empathy, are volunteering to help refugees in both Eastern and
The same cannot be said of Israel, which has alone ignited most of the Middle
East conflicts in recent decades. Instead, the debate in Israel continues to
centre on demographic threats, with rhetoric loaded with racial connotations
about the need to preserve a so-called Jewish identity. Strangely, few in the
media have picked up on that or found such a position particularly egregious
at the time of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.
In recent comments, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected calls
to shelter Syrian refugees, once more unleashing the demographic rationale,
which sees any non-Jews in Israel, be they Africans, Syrians, or even the
country's original Palestinian inhabitants, as a ''demographic threat''.
''Israel is a very small state,'' said Netanyahu on 6 September. ''It has no
geographic depth or demographic depth.''
When Israel was established on the ruins of destroyed Palestine, Palestinian
Jews were a small minority. It took multiple campaigns of ethnic cleaning,
which created the Palestinian refugee problem in the first place, to create a
Jewish majority in the newly-founded state. Now, Palestinian Arabs are only a
fifth of Israel's 8.3 million population, and yet, for many in Israel, even
such small numbers are a cause for alarm.
While the refugees of Qaytiyya, who became refugees time and again, are still
denied their internationally-enshrined right of return as per United Nations
Resolution 194 of December 1948, Israel is allowed special status. It is
neither rebuked nor forced to repatriate Palestinian refugees, and is now
exempt from playing even a minor role in alleviating the deteriorating
refugee crisis in the region.
Greece, Hungry, Serbia, Macedonia, Britain, Italy and other European
countries, along with rich Arab Gulf countries, must be pressured
relentlessly to help Syrian refugees until they can return home safely. Why,
then, should Israel be spared this necessary course of action? It must, even
more forcefully than the others, perhaps, be pressured to play a part in
relieving the refugee crisis, starting with the refugees of Qaytiyya whom the
Israelis expelled 67 years ago, and who are reliving that fate today.
– Dr. Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20
years. He is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an
author of several books and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest
book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story (Pluto Press,
London). His website is: www.ramzybaroud.net.