Where Will ‘Hell’ Strike Next?

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.