The Blog

Where Will 'Hell' Strike Next?

The Middle East today is in a perilous condition, with violent conflict, poverty and large scale displacement increasing. For too long the international community has pursued politics and largely ignored vulnerable communities.

UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, has described the current situation in Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus as "the deepest circle of hell". As such, it joins a wretched list of outrages against displaced Palestinians etched on the world's conscience, which should jog all legal and political counsels into action. But given that other entries include Sabra and Shatila, along with Gaza, it will no doubt remain on the 'to do' list.

Calls for more cash will be heard and partially responded to. The international community will express serious concern, yet display collective inertia. Tragically, precedence suggests that there are always greater depths to hell in the story of Palestinian displacement.

While the world has focused with occasional bursts of energy on the bricks and mortar of a two-state solution, half the Palestinian population, approximately five million men, women and children, exist in varying degrees of insecurity and vulnerability across the Middle East and beyond. Without the national representation and protection of a state and denied basic rights, including the right of return to their ancestral homes, Palestinian refugees continue to pay a heavy price for the absence of a viable solution to their displacement that is underpinned by international law.

Christian Aid has worked in the Middle East since the early 1950s in response to the refugee crisis after the 1948 war following Israel's declaration of independence. As refugees, Palestinians are frequently subject to legal, political and socio-economic discrimination wherever they are. They have frequently found themselves at the centre of conflict in fragile host states, such as Jordan and Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s. Or they have been pawns in disagreements between Arab states and the Palestinian leadership, including the attempt in 1995 by Libya to expel some of the 30,000 refugees living there. After the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, the ensuing political instability led to the persecution of Palestinians and resulted in the flight of thousands into makeshift camps on the Syrian-Iraqi border. Such examples demonstrate the vulnerabilities faced by displaced communities.

According to the UN there are 455,000 registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. On the night of September 16, 1982, during Israel's invasion of Lebanon, the Israeli military permitted a Christian Lebanese militia to enter two Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut: Sabra and Shatila. Over three days the militia, linked to the Maronite Phalange Party, raped, killed and dismembered women, children and elderly men. Red Cross sources estimated that between 1,000 and 1,500 were massacred; some reports suggest it was nearer 3,000.

Today, approximately 50,000 Palestinian refugees previously living in Syria have sought refuge in Lebanon. However, since January they have had their limited temporary right to remain withdrawn and face a Hobson's choice between illegality in Lebanon or conflict in Syria.

In 2014, Israeli attacks on the occupied Gaza Strip, the third since 2008, claimed 1,483 Palestinian civilian lives, including 521 children. During the seven week violent conflict over 500,000 Palestinians fled their homes. More than 100,000 remain displaced six months later as their houses were completely destroyed and aid has yet to reach them. The Gaza Strip is home to a population of more than 1.76 million people, of whom 1.26million are Palestinian refugees.

Prior to the war in Syria, Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus was home to more than 100,000 Palestinian refugees and poor Syrians. Today that population is down to 18,000, including 3,500 children. The camp has experienced some of the most savage fighting in this bitter civil war. The majority of its population have been displaced inside Syria and to Lebanon and Jordan alongside millions of Syrian refugees. Those left inside are at the mercy of so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda offshoot, al Nusra. Reports from Yarmouk tell of people burning their furniture to stay warm and eating stray dogs to stay alive.

The Middle East today is in a perilous condition, with violent conflict, poverty and large scale displacement increasing. For too long the international community has pursued politics and largely ignored vulnerable communities. Conflict has been sustained through patronage and a refusal to hold those who routinely abuse human rights and international law to account. At the heart of this region, although physically scattered across it, are Palestinian refugees who are denied the basic right to self-determination. Competing national narratives are exacerbated by a world that has not shown the maturity to rise above taking sides.

Over six decades ago, world leaders came together to establish international laws to avoid repeating the horrors experienced by millions in the first two world wars. Consistent abdication of responsibility for their implementation by subsequent leaders, means we are all facing a bleak future. The moral stain of forcing generations of Palestinians to continue living in overcrowded, wretched refugee camps constitutes political negligence. Worse still, the prioritising of politics over protection has created new refugee communities throughout the region now facing similar vulnerabilities, repeating the same historical mistakes.

Civilians right across the Middle East, regardless of faith or creed, deserve and need better. Continuing the status quo, or conflict management, between Israelis and Palestinians is not a viable strategy for a secure future for anyone. Similarly, throughout the Middle East, real political effort is needed to secure peace and that peace needs to be supported by a commitment to apply the law equally and reduce militarisation. To do otherwise ensures that 'hell' will be regularly revisited.

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