Palestinians with nowhere left to go are being collectively punished by the Assad regime.
As Palestinians face the unprecedented annexation of up to one-third the West Bank by Israel, there is at least a global consensus on the illegality, immorality and folly of this action by Israel.
But, for the Palestinians of Syria, Israel’s criminal exacerbation of the grand injustice of the dispossession of Palestinians overlaps with another of the region’s grand injustices, namely the Syrian genocide.
The Assad regime is currently carrying out a set of policies designed to deliberately change the demographic character of Yarmouk, Syria’s largest Palestinian refugee camp and the largest community of Palestinians outside of their lost homeland.
One of the few groups raising awareness of this monstrous injustice is the Action Group for Palestinians of Syria (AGPS), who are earnestly trying to draw attention to the fact that potentially tens of thousands of Syrian-Palestinians are being permanently cleansed from Yarmouk.
Using an ‘anti-terrorism’ law that allows the regime to carry out ‘security seizures’ of anyone they deem to be a ‘terrorist’, Assad has been able to confiscate many properties in Yarmouk.
Though the law was passed by Assad in 2012 to punish the families of rebels, dissidents and opposition figures, the regime now uses it according to your postcode.
In other words, if you happen to live in an area of Syria that rose up, peacefully or otherwise, against Assad, your property can be arbitrarily seized by the regime.
As Ahmed Hussein, a resident of Yarmouk who found refuge in London and is the executive director of AGPS, told me, "the regime are using it to collectively punish the Palestinians of Yarmouk, just as they did with bombs and starvation during the war."
Though many apologists will claim that Palestinians fled due to the seizure of the camp by Daesh in 2015, the reality is that only 18,000 Palestinians remained at that point.
Assad and Iran had ruthlessly bombarded an besieged Yarmouk prior to the presence of Daesh due to widespread support for the revolution among Palestinians.
As Hussein tells me, "we [Palestinians] were suffering under Assad too, so while some Palestinians remained neutral, many supported the uprising against the regime."
Even more galling to Assad was that when he began massacring unarmed protesters forcing a civil war, Yarmouk opened itself up as a safe haven for civil opposition groups and the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Assad and Iran’s response to this was to wage a campaign of unspeakable brutality against the camp. It was Assad-Iran’s use of ‘bombs and starvation’ that led to the UN Relief and Works Agency concluding that they had turned Yarmouk into a ‘death camp’ where hundreds of people, including babies, were dying from starvation.
When civilians would venture outside of the camp to forage for food, Assad’s snipers would pick them off. Soon the only option was to eat cats and dogs.
This, as well as the constant bombing of civilian areas of the camp is why tens of thousands of Palestinians fled the camp, making their way to liberated areas of Syria, Lebanon, Turkey or Europe. It was also during this time that Assad allowed Daesh to migrate into the camp from Hajar al Aswad, aiding the group’s offensive on the camp by bombing the groups that fought Daesh, namely the FSA and their Palestinian allies Aknaf Bayt al Maqdis.
This is why Assad now seeks to collectively punish the Palestinians of Yarmouk by erasing the refugee camp and ‘redeveloping’ it for use by loyalists.
Syria’s kleptocratic elites, now buoyed by Iran’s swooping imperialist hawks, have had their eye on Yarmouk as part of wider plans to ‘redevelop’ South Damascus, with the camp being incorporated into the metropolitan area. The much-reduced population of Palestinians would be relocated to scrublands.
With many of the houses in the camp reduced to rubble, and with the properties remaining under refugee ownership, Ahmed tells me that Palestinians are essentially being shaken down.
In addition to the ‘security seizures’ allowed by the anti-terror law, Palestinians in Syria, as second class citizens, have only ever been allowed to own property according to temporary court orders or through Syrian intermediaries.
These grey areas saw pro-Assad Palestinian businessmen shoehorn Palestinians into selling their property for paltry sums. In true old school imperialist fashion, these businessmen are acting on behalf of Iran’s ‘Nikken Syria’ construction group, set up by Iran to triumphantly claim the spoils of the vicious genocidal war it has waged on Syrians for nine years.
In theory, Palestinians can prove their ownership, but as Ahmed tells me, "the time allowed to reclaim our property is limited and the regime make the documentation impossible to attain if you live outside Syria, while they have made it illegal for others within Syria to act on our behalf."
Sounds all too familiar. Israel isn’t the only force in the region that seeks to use annexation and dispossession for its own supremacist purposes.
The AGPS have likened Assad’s plans to a ‘new Nakba.’ As Hussein put it, "we are being denied a right to return to the place our fathers fled to when the Zionists forced us out of our homeland."
This deliberate dispossession of Palestinian property by Assad is just one snapshot of the wider will by the regime and its allies to permanently change the demography of Syria.
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