“Thanks to God I have made it here. I am free, I am alive!”
By Jesse Rosenfeld
Lesbos, Athens, and northern Greece—In the baking midday August heat on the Greek island of Lesbos, Ziad Mouatash bounces out of an overcrowded inflatable raft and touches EU soil for the first time. The 22-year-old from Yarmouk—the Palestinian refugee camp on the edge of Damascus that has been besieged and bombed since 2012 by Bashar al-Assad’s forces and recently invaded by ISIS and the Al Qaeda–affiliated Nusra Front—hugs everyone around him, ecstatic to be alive.
From the Greek shore, activists and locals had looked on helplessly as the boat’s motor broke down two miles away, water pouring into the barely floating rubber dinghy. Children and adults alike cried desperately for help, until they were towed to Greece by another boat of refugees coming from Turkey.
Mouatash paid human traffickers in Turkey over 1,000 euros for this near-death experience, but as far as he’s concerned, it was a far less risky choice than continuing to hide out in deteriorating Damascus, which he’d abandoned for Turkey two weeks before. As a Palestinian who grew up in Syria’s refugee camps, he is stateless, but he has a brother in Paris and hopes to start a new life in France.
He paces up and down the shoreline, unsure of which direction to go, while local activists try to bring the new arrivals together to tell them that they need to start a 40-mile walk to a registration center on the other side of the island.
Although he has escaped the horrors of Syria’s grinding civil war, Mouatash is just beginning the difficult journey through Europe. He will have to cross more borders illegally; rest in filthy, makeshift camps; pay traffickers to help him cross those borders; dodge border police; and sleep in parks and fields, before he can reunite with his brother. Still, Mouatash is one of the lucky ones. Four days after his arrival, a raft off the Greek island of Kos capsized and six Syrians—including a baby—drowned.
Yarmouk and the Palestinian-Israeli Peace Negotiations
There is little by way of human cruelty that has not been visited on the people of the Levant over the past century. Iraqis, Israelis, Lebanese, Palestinians, and Syrians have all faced massacres, terrorism, bombings, and any number of other atrocities, including what are probably the only two uses of chemical weapons since World War II. But calculated starvation — the deliberate policy of withholding food from suffering, ordinary people on a mass scale — has very little history in the region. And that makes the situation in the Yarmouk camp just outside Damascus, where 18,000 Palestinian refugees are slowly and deliberately being starved by the Syrian dictatorship, all the more horrifying.
The Palestinians trapped there can do little to alleviate their plight. And humanitarian efforts by the United Nations and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) have so far been thwarted by pro-regime forces. But the Palestinian leadership and people should recognize that Yarmouk has urgent, if indirect, implications for the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations.
Every Arab state has tried, at one time or another, to manipulate the Palestinian issue for its own purposes. But the Assad family’s Baathist regime in Syria has been uniquely hostile to the mainstream Palestinian national movement. It has shown time and again that its official commitment to the Palestinian cause is a smokescreen for its own interests. It has never really accepted the idea that Palestine, or Lebanon for that matter, is a separate entity from a greater Syria, which it still aspires to create. And its primary concern has been to ensure as much Palestinian subservience as possible to the Damascus dictatorship’s ideology and interests.
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