“There are many Yarmouks in Syria,” says UN official as humanitarian crisis spreads

Palestinians in Ramallah take part in a demonstration in solidarity with Palestinian refugees trapped inside the Yarmouk camp in Damascus.

Issam Rimawi APA images

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Chris Gunness from UNRWA on Yarmouk camp

Nora Barrows-Friedman: How much food was the UN able to deliver to Yarmouk this week?

Chris Gunness: The simple answer is “not enough.” There are 18,000 people trapped in Yarmouk, in a besieged refugee camp which is effectively a relatively poor neighborhood of Damascus, which until the fighting was home to 160,000 people.

The 18,000 people that are there, we know, are desperate. There is intense civilian suffering. So there’s widespread malnutrition, children with rickets, children with anemia, women dying in childbirth because of a lack of medical care. Water and electricity are in extremely short supply.

This snapshot of Yarmouk is by way of saying that we have got in just a few hundred food parcels, which isn’t a drop in the ocean compared with need. There have been “security problems,” there have been access problems. But Nora, you have to understand that we have got no choice but to work with the parties on the ground, and that means that there are constraints, and those are terrifying and terrible constraints, but UNRWA as an organization which has worked in Syria for more than six decades has no choice but to work with the realities on the ground — appalling as those realities are.

NBF: Chris, it was reported that military personnel would only allow food parcels to be given to people whose name is on a list of 5,000 Yarmouk residents supplied to it by a Palestinian charity. How many Palestinian refugees are in Yarmouk camp, can you describe how massive this camp is?

CG: It’s huge. I mean, it was home to more than 150,000 people. It’s literally a suburb of Damascus. It was once a thriving suburb of Damascus, it’s heavily-populated, it’s small, it’s cramped. We’ve been circulating pictures that we managed — we, the UN I should say — and if you look at them, they’re on our website, unrwa.org. They show a terrifying portrait of urban destruction. There is wholesale destruction of buildings.

To get our convoy into Yarmouk, we had basically to lead the convoy with a bulldozer because there’s so much debris and the remnants of fighting and war and goodness knows what. So it’s devastated. it’s absolutely devastated. The public infrastructure of Yarmouk is devastated. Water, sewage, all the things which normal societies rely on, have basically been destroyed.

We’re very concerned about Yarmouk. But let’s put this into perspective. There are many Yarmouks in Syria. We have seven refugee camps, seven out of 12 which have been transformed into theaters of war. So it’s a terrible situation that in the 21st century, in the capital city of a UN member state, there are reports of widespread malnutrition. And we are advocating as robustly as we can for this situation to be changed. But let’s make no mistake — UNRWA is a humanitarian organization, we have no dog in the political fight. And we’re not present at the Geneva II peace conference. But it is of course the Geneva conference that ultimately is going to — or some kind of political process — which is going to provide a solution.

In the meantime, UNRWA remains absolutely undaunted by the fact that its convoy found itself in the middle of a firefight. We have had — I have had ten colleagues killed in this conflict, and 20 of my colleagues have disappeared. We simply don’t know where they are. So we’re paying a huge price for the work we do, but we remain undaunted and we will continue to press for permanent, for safe and secure humanitarian access. Because that is desperately what is needed, but it’s probably something which a political process will provide.

NBF: Chris, you mentioned that an UNRWA convoy was fired upon trying to reach Yarmouk camp on January 13, do you know anything about who fired on it?

CG: Well, Nora, if I could just qualify that — the bulldozer, it was a six-truck convoy, and it was carrying 10,000 polio vaccines and enough food for about 6,000 people — which is not enough. And we got to the last government-controlled checkpoint, and a firefight broke out. And the bulldozer at the front of the convoy, which technically wasn’t an UNRWA vehicle, so it’s not quite the case to say that UNRWA was fired on, but there was a firefight and that bulldozer was hit.

There was then machine-gun fire, and I don’t know whether you’ve ever been around machine-gun fire, but it’s absolutely terrifying. There was then a mortar explosion near the convoy. And we had no choice in that situation but to turn around and leave. It’s not clear to us — we’re not military experts, we don’t do crater analysis and the like — so we frankly don’t know what caused it, why it happened and who was involved. But there was a firefight very close to the convoy. The bulldozer was hit, and mortar — mortar explosions are very loud and very frightening and very dangerous, near the convoy.

So we don’t know, it was a situation of confusion. But as I said, UNRWA remains undaunted. We will continue to try to get convoys in because humanitarian need is catastrophically urgent.

NBF: Many Palestinian refugees fleeing the violence in Syria have been treated terribly by neighboring countries during this period of time. Can you talk about the situation for those refugees trying to find a safe place for their families, once again as Palestinians are being displaced, sometimes multiple times since their initial expulsion by Israel in 1948?

CG: Yes. Well, as you say, the plight they find themselves in demonstrates the multiple displacements and the multiple vulnerabilities, which is why we say it’s so important to find a just and durable solution for these refugees. We only have news and information about those refugees, Palestinian refugees from Syria, who have fled to the areas where we work. So in Lebanon, there are at any time about 50,000 Palestine refugees from Syria. That number goes up and down because it’s a very fluid security situation. They come in and out across the border.

Though the Lebanese do have two systems: one price for visas for Palestinian refugees, and there is a discriminatory policy by the Lebanese. That said, Lebanon has allowed in about 50,000. How many European countries or North American countries would allow in 50,000 refugees just like that? So, Lebanon has been generous but we advocate against the discriminatory policies that are used against the Palestinians.

In Jordan, it’s worse. In Jordan, there is the policy of what we call technically the word “refoulement,” which basically means that refugees are barred. Now, the Jordanian government has publicly stated that this is their policy, and we have publicly stated that we oppose those policies, and we continue to advocate against those policies because governments have an obligation to give safe haven to people fleeing with a well-founded fear of persecution, fleeing the situation we know.

And of course the situation the Palestinians are fleeing is absolutely the same situation that ordinary Syrians are fleeing, so it makes no sense to have two policies, one for Palestinians and one for everybody else.

But let’s also put this into historical context: Jordan historically has been very generous. There are two million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, name me a European country that would allow two million foreigners to remain and to be refugees for as long as the Jordanians have. So let’s put the policy of refoulement into context: Jordan has been very generous. And, just as Lebanon, despite the terrible situation that the Palestinians are in, Lebanon, too, has in relative terms been very generous towards the Palestinians, though the situation for Palestinians there, barred from so many professions, is absolutely terrible. I’m not trying to cover any of that up.

We’ve also got a thousand refugees from Syria in Gaza — I mean, imagine how terrible things are, you flee the civil war in Syria and then you end up in one of the most isolated, blockaded parts of the world in human history, frankly — but nonetheless, there are a thousand Palestinian refugees who have come to UNRWA for help in Gaza, people from Syria. And we’re doing all we can to look after them.

I can’t talk for Palestinian refugees who’ve fled to Turkey, there are these terrible reports you see of Palestinian refugees drowning, trying to make it to Europe — this is all absolutely terrible. But it does illustrate, as you’ve said, their multiple vulnerabilities and their multiple displacements, and that’s why we say ultimately — whether it’s in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, wherever, there must be a just and durable solution that ultimately is the ultimate protection that we advocate for these people.

NBF: As heads of state and members of the Syrian government and the rebel opposition continue talks in Switzerland, what can you say about what exactly is happening in Yarmouk and who specifically is preventing aid from entering, is it the government? Is it the rebel opposition? And how much is each responsible for this situation?

CG: Well, let’s look at the history. When the war broke out in Syria, the Palestinians remained apart from it, and they didn’t want — I mean, who would want to become part of a civil war in which you die? So it was logical that they shouldn’t want to do that. And what happened is in December 2012, armed opposition groups did move into the camp, and the government responded with overwhelming use of force, and by putting a cordon around the camp so the roads into and out of the camp had checkpoints by them.

Who’s responsible? I mean, the rebels went in, the government responded. The government narrative is that there was a terrorist threat, they had to respond to it. The opposition narrative is of course something quite different. So it’s very hard to apportion blame, and it’s clear though that all sides are failing to live up to obligations under international law.

International law prohibits armed conflicts taking place near civilian infrastructure and near civilians, it’s clear that women and children, non-combatants, the elderly, the sick, the dying, the wounded, have not been given an opportunity to be evacuated, and this is by the way true not just of Yarmouk but it’s true of many, many civilian areas of Syria. So I think, you know, what is to blame? I think it’s the appalling circumstances, I think the particular and unique history of each particular civilian area of Syria makes it impossible to generalize.

But let’s face it, we’re all responsible for Yarmouk, the Syrian government clearly bears responsibility, the armed opposition bears responsibility, the United Nations bears responsibility, and the point that I would say is that it’s an affront to the humanity of all of us. The humanity of all of us is diminished while the people, the civilians of Syria and the people of Yarmouk and other civilian areas, are denied their own dignity and their own humanity.

End transcript.

Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt of The Gaza Kitchen

Thanks to the Marc Steiner Show and Sound Bites for this segment.

Maggie Schmitt: The Gaza Kitchen is a cookbook, but it’s more than a cookbook, it’s a portrait of the Gaza Strip told through food, using, on the one hand, heritage recipes, traditional recipes made by families in their homes for generations, and sort of tracing the origins of those recipes; it shows vignettes and interviews with individual cooks in their homes, and tries to introduce the reader to daily life among ordinary people in the Gaza Strip through those vignettes; and then it sort of follows the food to its source and through interviews with food producers, economists, nutritionists, et cetera, it tries to show a broader sense of how the political and economic situation in the Gaza Strip is functioning right now — specifically through the lens of the food system.

Mark Gunnery: Why Gaza?

Laila El-Haddad: I’m from Gaza City, I grew up between Gaza and the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Gaza is in many ways a pilot, a kind of case study in rapid de-development that you might see in many places of the world, but also a case study in understanding Israeli policies towards Palestinians in general.

It has also been very isolated over the course of the past two decades, it also has a very large concentration of Palestinian refugees, something like 80 percent of the population of Gaza are comprised of refugees [from] outside of the modern-day Gaza Strip, which makes it a very interesting place to encounter Palestinian culinary traditions in general.

We started our field work in the summer of 2010, and we sort of hit the ground running, and we had a few leads to go on, initially. I myself am from Gaza, so my family lives there, and my extended family, so I started with that, started with my knowledge of who a few good characters would be to begin to interview, and it really happened in a haphazard way; but one person would lead us to another person, would lead us to a farmer, would lead us to an agronomist, and it was incredible because we were met with such great enthusiasm — the idea of writing about food, of using food to tell the larger story of Gaza really appealed to people, and people there just got it immediately whereas people elsewhere may have taken them a little bit.

So it was really very easy, in a way. We didn’t face any resistance in that regard.

MS: One of the most surprising and continually gratifying things about doing the field work for this book was how eager everyone was to talk about food. Everyone wanted to tell us about how they prepared food, how their grandmother had prepared food.

Food is such a source of identity, such a source of pride, such an object of interest and affection and enthusiasm that we were again and again invited into homes, shown different recipes. Everyone wanted to argue about one village’s version and another village’s version of a given recipe.

An important aspect of this book is its depiction or its documentation of daily life, domestic life, households, ordinary peoples’ ordinary, everyday activities. We tried to enter ordinary family homes and talk to cooks, principally women, about the food they prepare, how they prepare it, where the recipes come from, and people were extraordinarily generous in inviting us into their homes and showing us both their recipes and also talking about their families, their lives, their home economy, what their food costs them, this kind of basic, everyday life.

LE: In 2005, Israel unilaterally disengaged from the Gaza Strip, which was this process through which it dismantled its settlements there, and its military infrastructure, but then retained control over Gaza’s effective markers of sovereignty. So, meaning Israel could continue to control the airspace, the borders, the fishing waters, the commercial crossings, the taxation system, the population registry.

After 2005, what it began to do is institute a buffer zone — otherwise known as a “no-go zone” inside the borders of Gaza, and it began to systematically raze the farmland in that area. And half of Gaza’s farmland is located along that buffer zone, and this buffer zone keeps creeping further and further into Gaza. So, whereas it began out as 100 meters, it now juts in as far as one kilometer, or one and a half miles into the Gaza Strip at any given point.

And farmers and shepherds really farm at their own peril in these areas, and oftentimes cannot access their land — it goes into misuse or it has been completely razed. It’s a daily struggle and resistance for these farmers to keep their farms arable. And we met many farmers who once, and twice, or three times, were replanting their olive trees, which of course take years to become fruitful — but this was kind of their small, ordinary form of resistance.

MG: Now, how much agriculture is there in Gaza today?

MS: There is more agriculture in Gaza today than you would expect, given representations, and given the tremendous population squeezed into a really tiny surface area. Still, between tiny home gardens in individual family plots on rooftops, and then small swaths of agricultural land, which is very rich, it’s very arid, so water is always matter for debate — whether to irrigate, whether to drill, whether to use the rapidly-dwindling underground aquifers, or whether to rely on traditional rain-fed agriculture.

But there is a lively agricultural sector in Gaza, which is holding out against repeated destruction. Israeli attacks on Gaza in the last several years have frequently targeted agricultural production, farms — specifically, chicken farms, for example — also, the whole swath of arable land along the border area has been both actively destroyed and put off-limits so that those lands that are still under cultivation, farmers can no longer reach them to harvest those products.

MG: How are regular Gazans dealing with food insecurity in Gaza right now, and how are the agricultural departments of Hamas and Fatah and the NGOs that you’re describing — what are the larger plans you’re working with?

MS: Gaza is an extremely tiny territory with an extraordinarily high population density and a tremendous tightness of resources in every respect. There’s little water, and it’s running out, there’s little land, and it’s running out; the borders are closed, the sea is closed off — there’s an incredible sense of claustrophobic squeezing of every resource.

There’s a very lively and intense public debate about how to manage those very tight resources — whether maintaining some limited, marginal agricultural self-sufficiency is worth the water use that irrigation represents, whether it’s not; whether Gaza will ever be self-sustainable as an agricultural territory and therefore shouldn’t even try. So there’s a very active debate about that. It’s hard to read because of the shifting multitude of actors at work in Gaza. There are hundreds of NGOs, there are two different governments, there are UN agencies — all are sort of active in determining agricultural policy, often at cross-purposes. So it’s an extremely complicated panorama of governance on all levels.

Particularly, we were interested in agricultural governance and centralizing the planning of agriculture — extremely difficult even in so tiny a territory. But within that difficulty, we saw some very, very interesting undertakings in terms of promoting wastewater management, composting, attempts to discover rain-fed agriculture, agriculture that was possible on marginally-usable lands. There’s a lot of innovation going on in order to adapt to the really extreme circumstances of the Strip.

MG: So you’re describing maintaining Palestinian cuisine and agricultural traditions as a form of steadfast resistance. What do you mean by that?

LE: Palestinians have this concept called sumoud, otherwise known as steadfastness — which is their everyday, quiet resistance, where simply to be able to exist is in and of itself an act of resistance against the Israeli occupation. And this extends to their preservation of their culinary heritage.

So where you might have families who were dispossessed of their lands, driven from their homes in 1948 in historic Palestine and now find themselves in the Gaza Strip, and into the third and fourth generations, you also find that they retain, down to the very minute details, of how to finish stews, for example. The very specific recipes and dishes and regional variations of these dishes.

So while the villages of Beit Jirja, or Hammama, or Beit ‘Ima may no longer exist on the map, we can still taste them through these recipes, and that is considered to be an act of resistance for these people, in addition to farmers being able to access their farmland, and continue to make that farmland usable — one farmer that I met in Beit Hanoun, I saw him planting his olive trees for the third time, with a smile on his face. And he said “this is the way that I can resist the occupation, no matter what happens, no matter how many times they raze these olive trees,” and something like 40,000 of these olive trees have been razed. He said “I will continue to go back to the land and re-plant these trees with the knowledge that they will not bear fruit again for many, many years.”

End transcript.


Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).