Israeli Concern and Arab Apathy

The contrast could hardly be greater.  Israel has helped to alleviate the suffering of Syrians, while the rest of the world speaks about that suffering but does little to relieve it.

On February 18, 2014, Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, even visited wounded Syrians at an Israeli field hospital in the Golan Heights.  On March 5, 2014, Chris Gunness, spokesman of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), spoke of the profound suffering of civilians in the Palestinian camp in Yarmouk in Damascus and of the widespread incidence of starvation, malnutrition, and absence of medical care in the camp – but little relief has come from Arabs.

Since 1948, Syria has been at war with Israel, having refused to sign an armistice agreement to end its attack.  Nevertheless, Israel has been aiding individuals fleeing the civil war in Syria that has so far cost at least 130,000 lives and perhaps two million who have fled their homes.  More than 700 wounded Syrians – men, women, and children – have entered Israel to be treated for war injuries in the Golan Heights military field hospital, including wounded fighters who had been turned back when trying to enter Jordan and therefore went to Israel.  Individuals needing further treatment have been airlifted to hospitals farther south in Israel with specialist facilities.  Besides this medical attention, other Israelis, including the actress Natalie Portman, have donated funds and clothing to Syrian women and children.

Not surprisingly, the biased groups and individuals in the media, academia, mainstream churches, and trade unions, who, out of professed concern for the Palestinians in the West Bank, advocate boycott of the State of Israel and its personnel, have totally ignored this extraordinary Israeli aid to suffering enemies, even if only nominally enemies.  What is surprising is that these same people have also said or done so little to alleviate the plight of suffering Palestinians caused by the brutal and indifferent treatment by Syrians in the camp in Yarmouk.  Once again, their behavior reveals their hypocrisy and shows that the true nature of their actions is to act against Israel rather than on behalf of the Palestinians.

Yarmouk is a district of about three quarters of a square mile, and about five miles from the center of Damascus.  At one point it housed 180,000 Palestinian refugees, or more accurately the children, grandchildren, and increasingly the great-grandchildren of those who left their homes after the Arab armies attacked the newly created State of Israel.  They have been prevented by Arab states from absorption into the general population.

The district, virtually a city in itself, became the scene of intense fighting, in which Palestinians took different sides.  Some, including the group Liwa al-Asifa and some supporters of Hamas, supported the rebel groups, especially the Free Syria Army.  Others, particularly the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), led by Ahmed Jibril, supported the regime of President Bashar Assad.  It was Jibril who in June 2011 orchestrated an attack on Israeli forces in the Golan Heights.  In addition, Palestinians have fought against Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliated group that has been active in the camp.

The absence of humanitarian behavior was shown by the sordid reality that no food was allowed into the area until January 18, 2014.  Then, some people, mainly ill or pregnant, were allowed to leave and enter the Assad-controlled area of Damascus.  By then, more than 100 had died of hunger or hunger-related illnesses since the blockade of the area by Assad that had begun about a year ago, since no food or medical aid had been allowed into the area.  Most of the Palestinians have now fled the area, to other parts of Damascus or to Lebanon, but about 18,000 are still trapped there.

There is no need to belabor the point that if Yarmouk were besieged by Israeli forces, the situation would be covered by the anti-Israel mass media and by the usual anti-Israel and anti-Semitic suspects, and the United Nations would have passed numerous resolutions condemning the Jewish State.

The silence about the Arab atrocities in Yarmouk is deafening, and appalling.  Amnesty International has not issued an 87-page report condemning Syria for those atrocities, as it did in February 20124 when it censured Israeli actions such as checkpoints in the West Bank.  Oxfam International has not had problems with any of its “ambassadors,” as it had with Scarlett Johansson.  The novelist Alice Walker, who stated that Israel is “an apartheid state,” worse than the infamous South African regime or even the old American South, has not organized an international flotilla to break the blockade of Yarmouk.  Roger Waters has not yet advised other musicians not to perform in Syria.  The American Studies Association, after its resolution boycotting Israeli universities, has not yet found where Yarmouk is on the map.

As always, the U.N. remains “deeply concerned” about the desperate humanitarian situation in Yarmouk.  Yet it was not until February 22, 2014 that the U.N. Security Council agreed unanimously on a resolution calling for the facilitation of food and aid deliveries to the district, and calling on both sides in the civil war to allow aid convoys to reach civilians.  It is hardly a strong resolution, since it does not call for any sanctions to be imposed if the parties do otherwise.  Nevertheless, UNRWA has said it has supplied about 6,000 food parcels to the stricken area, though those supplies have been intermittent due to the continuing fighting.  

When will there be impartial and honest commentary by the eager boycotters of Israel on the starvation and humiliation of Palestinians by fellow Arabs?  When will they report on the brutality of the civil war and on the fighters of Hezb'allah in Syria, so-called liberators though terrorists, for killing Palestinians?  They appear hoodwinked by the lip service that Arab leaders pay to the Palestinian “cause” and seem fooled by the fact that those leaders may wear the kuffiyas, traditional Palestinian scarves.  They also seem blind to how little tangible aid has been given to the Palestinians by the Arab states.

Those leaders and perhaps the Arab people as a whole may think of the symbolism of Yarmouk.  This is the place of the historical battle in 636, when Muslim forces defeated the armies of the Eastern Roman Empire, thus ending Byzantine rule in Syria.  It has long been celebrated as a great Arab victory, almost the start of the Islamic conquests after the death of the Prophet.  It is not the site of an Arab victory today.

The myth may continue of Arab brotherhood and solidarity.  The destitution in Yarmouk shows hollow this is.  Meanwhile, Syrians seeking medical assistance continue to enter Israel and receive treatment.  Only the uninformed, biased bigots of the BDS movement seem to be unaware of this.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism and the Middle East.