MESOP REPORT : The Humanitarian Crisis in the Yarmouk Refugee Camp as seen on SNS

by Dr. Michael Barak  (Beehive)

Since the eruption of the Syrian revolution in 2011, there has been a severe humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian refugee camp Yarmouk, located on the edge of Damascus. This crisis intensified in the last two years, after the Syrian regime placed a curfew on the camp in order to weaken the power of the rebel militias there. [1] The famine afflicting the 18,000 residents of the camp prompted Palestinian and Syrian human rights activists to mount a protest campaign on social networking sites (SNS) aimed at increasing international awareness of this pressing issue. For example, in early March, they began an online campaign sharing videos and photographs documenting life in the camp with the hashtag “#I am hungry”).

Activists placed responsibility for the tragedy on the Syrian regime, and demanded that humanitarian aid be sent to the camp. [2] The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNWRA) also attempted to promote awareness of the crisis using a campaign with the hashtag “#SaveYarmouk.” [3] However, the two campaigns were not particularly successful. Only in early April 2014 did the crisis in Yarmouk enter the consciousness of the international community, after approximately 80% of its territory was, without warning, conquered by ISIS. The establishment of ISIS in the camp, which it considers to be a forward base in conquering Damascus, provoked a murderous response by the Syrian regime’s air force,  which dropped barrels of explosives on camp residents, rebels, and civilians alike.

ISIS’s conquest and the intensification of the humanitarian crisis in Yarmouk camp stirred up lively conversation among Syrian and Palestinian users of SNS. This discourse expressed a lack of confidence in the ability of various Palestinian organizations to protect the refugees, as well as protests against the apathy that other Arab leaders have displayed towards the Palestinians’ fate. One user wrote: “Only when they heard that ISIS – the demon of this world – entered Yarmouk did they wake up. Where were they when the Syrian regime imposed a curfew on the camp, and when people were dying of hunger?” [4] Palestinian users around the world expressed solidarity with the residents of the camp and called for an end to the tragedy. Some replaced their profile pictures with a picture of the camp and the caption “Yarmouk will never fall.” [5] Others expressed a double revulsion, for both the Syrian regime and for ISIS, whom they described as two sides of the same coin, evil forces that both need to be contained.

 Users from Gaza were prominent among those commenting on Yarmouk, perhaps because Hamas has attempted to use both SNS (including the Quds TV application that streams reports in real time) and traditional media to arouse concern for the situation of the camp’s residents for many months. For example, students in Gaza launched a campaign entitled “YarmoukOurDignity” (pictured below) and explained that the camp is now a prominent symbol of the Palestinian problem and of the national ethos that preserves the right of return to Palestine.[6]

A Hamas activist on the Al-Aqsa satellite network tweeted that Yarmouk “kindles within us longing for return, and reminds Arabs of the wound of the Nakba and the pain of being far from Palestine…”[7] Similar voices were also heard in the West Bank, although to a lesser extent. A Fataḥ activist from Nablus wrote that eliminating the refugee camps would mean the elimination of the Palestinian problem, meaning abandoning the ethos of a Palestinian return to Palestine. Therefore, it could not be passed over in silence; rather, it is essential to defend the residents of Yarmouk without delay.

The discourse on SNS also represents the stormy debate between Hamas activists and supporters of ISIS, both Palestinians and non-Palestinians. The former describe ISIS as an evil, violent organization that fights against helpless, hungry people. One Hamas supporter wrote, “The world is silent in the face of ISIS’s efforts to behead residents of the camp but the Palestinian nation rejects them.”[8] Conversely, Palestinian supporters of ISIS claim that the accusations of ISIS’s cruelty in Yarmouk are a fabricated PR campaign. Some use the hashtag “#Yarmouk embarrasses Hamas” for this purpose. Others claimed that even Iran, Syria, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, headed by Ahmed Jibril, are not interested in helping the refugees in Yarmouk, but rather are trading in their blood in order to maintain their political power despite the ascendency of ISIS.[9] An ISIS activist noted, “The leadership of Hamas has died since the death of Sheikh Yassin, and nothing remains other than mercenaries concerned solely with their own interests.”[10]

The dialogue around Yarmouk was an opportunity for supporters of Hamas to attack both Fataḥ (formerly the Palestinian National Liberation Movement) and the Palestinian Authority (PA), against the backdrop of the ongoing competition between the two movements, which currently centers on the rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip. Supporters of Hamas pointed an accusatory finger at the PA’s failure to find a reasonable solution for the problems in Yarmouk, in order to present its leadership as weak and illegitimate. One lecturer from Gaza tweeted mockingly, “I want to inform Chairman Abbas [Abu Mazen] that the people of Yarmouk are human.”[11] Another accused Fataḥ of collaborating in the crimes of the Syrian regime after the movement’s delegate in Damascus allegedly agreed to transfer control of Yarmouk to the Syrian regime, while evacuating most of the people remaining in the camp to the surrounding villages and other places of refuge. [12]

Conversely, some Arab users – mostly from the Gulf states but also from Lebanese, Syrians, and even Palestinians – criticized Hamas. They claimed that until three years ago Hamas was a member of the Axis of Opposition, together with Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah, but more recently has shut its eyes to the crimes committed by the Syrian regime, and therefore it cannot shake off responsibility for the tragedy in Yarmouk. A user from the Gulf noted, for example, that Hamas is betraying its people and uninterested in collaborating with the PA to find a solution for the problem. Palestinian users from Lebanon expressed pessimism about the willingness of both Fataḥ and Hamas to translate their many statements on the issue into actual work on the ground.[13]

This discourse on SNS represents broad popular disappointment with both Arab and Palestinian leaders’ inability to find a solution for the crisis in Yarmouk. Many consider the events in the camp to be a current reminder of the ongoing Palestinian problem, one that is especially relevant to the ethos of return. As a result, it is a test of Arab and international willingness to make the effort needed to solve the problem. Moreover, the discourse reflects the Palestinians’ lack of confidence in the willingness and ability of the PA and Hamas leadership to solve the problem, while emphasizing the seemingly cynical considerations that each side brings to the issue for its political benefits and at the refugees’ expense. Simultaneously, the activities of Hamas and its supporters are conspicuous as the principal leaders of the discourse on SNS, as part of their attempt to lower the standing of both the PA, its main competitor, and ISIS, which is emerging as a power potentially capable of undermining Hamas’ standing in the intra-Palestinian arena. Beyond the rivalry between the various voices within Yarmouk, the discourse on SNS reflects the significance of the camp for Palestinians, who consider it a symbol of the Nakba, one that must remain part of the Palestinian national consciousness.