The hundreds, or thousands, in the back of this neverending line look like they could be CGI’d. The rubble to the left hangs precipitously, like an apple in a Cezanne still-life. There is a tree in the middle of the road. But this photo was posted Wednesday by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency—it is very real. It shows a street in Damascus, Syria, on January 31, as Palestinian refugees queue for their ever-diminishing daily food ration. They're residents of Yarmouk Refugee Camp, an unofficial camp that before Syria’s civil war was home to 150,000 Palestinian refugees, a figure that since the war has dwindled to just 20,000. They are currently besieged by Assad forces, and of late UNWRA has not even been allowed in to distribute humanitarian aid—which, on Wednesday, prompted an official to speak out and, doubtlessly, prompted UNWRA to release this photograph.
The people in the photograph are “refugees twice over,” as Haaretz put it in an earlier headline. As residents of Syria, their lives have been ruined by the war; and as Palestinians, they have fewer natural allies among the players in the Syrian war, leaving them especially vulnerable to depredations like what is happening in Yarmouk. “The tragedy lies in that there really is no one to negotiate with in order to secure free flow of aid to the camp,” reported Haaretz last month, noting that leaders in the camp were unable to negotiate with various factions within the camp to the satisfaction of the regime. And why would Syrians negotiate with Palestinian Authority leaders, who lack the mandate of statehood?
In the past, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad earned a good deal of credibility with Syrians, and throughout the Arab world, with his “resistance” to Israel. It is clear he cares about Palestinian rights exactly to the extent that doing so is convenient for him. Mere months ago, he was attempting to distract from his own country’s problems by pledging to attack Israel via the Golan Heights, a territory Israel captured from Syria in 1967’s war. In 2011, as the whiff of revolt first stirred, Assad unprecedentedly encouraged a few Palestinians to storm Israel’s border on Naqba Day—the day of remembrance for the Naqba, or “Catastrophe,” of the creation of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees during Israel’s War of Independence—leading to the deaths of 16. (One Palestinian journalist has called what is happening in Yarmouk a “second Naqba.”)
Assad’s Syria is ostensibly part of an “Axis of Resistance” to Israel. So are Iran and Hezbollah, both of which have lent blood and treasure to Assad, immiserating not only Syria but its Palestinians. All three have put their money where their mouths aren’t, but their interests are.
Last month, left-wing Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy urged Israel to save Yarmouk’s 20,000. It is too sophisticated—or just plain sophistic—for Levy to hold Israel “morally responsible for what happens in this camp, albeit indirectly,” since, after all, Israel’s “establishment led to the existence of these refugees in exiles.” (It’s a lot more complicated than that.) My hunch is that Israel—which has used its soldiers and hospitals to rescue and care for Syrians across its northern border—would resist accepting these refugees partly for fear of seeming to endorse Palestinian claims for the right of return.
But it is not wrong to connect the plight of Yarmouk to its residents’ statelessness, even though it is the Assad regime in 2014 and not the Zionist forces of 1948 that are presently starving them. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not just about land and religion. The majority of Palestinians do not live in the West Bank. What is happening in Yarmouk is a persuasive case for the justice and necessity of a state that Palestinians, an oppressed and stateless people, can call home.