One of the stories obscured by recent revelations about the breadth of devastation in the two-year-old Syrian civil war is that of the Palestinian refugees of the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus. Yarmouk, the largest of nine official Palestinian refugee camps in Syria, has been targeted by both the Assad regime and rebel forces - killing many and forcing the reported exodus of at least half of its 150,000 residents (according to UN estimates). As recently as January 8, fighting in and around the camp killed 5,000 of the over 60,000 people killed over the past few months.
Complicating events further, many Palestinians have allied themselves with either the Assad regime's supporters, or rebel supporters, intensifying the internecine violence within the camp itself. Divisions have tended to reflect religious and secular fault lines within the Palestinian ideological spectrum. Secular/socialist groups like the PFLP-GC align with the Assad regime (as longstanding supporters) while Ikhwan/Hamas supporters side with the rebel militias. Yet, in a telling warning, the Assad regime cautioned the Palestinians not to aid the insurgency in its fighting against the regime with the hope of maintaining their historical support.
As a demonstration of "good will" Abbas met with UN chief Ban Ki-moon to seek Israeli permission to bring Palestinians caught in Syria's civil war to the Palestinian areas, or now the "state of Palestine." Consequently, Ban Ki-moon acted as the messenger and was told by the Government of Israel that they would agree "to the return of those refugees to Gaza and the West Bank, but on condition that each refugee ... sign a statement that he doesn't have the right of return (to Israel)."
The offer was flatly rejected; the Palestinian narrative views all of Israel as Palestinian land. Further, such an action may subvert that sacrosanct element of Palestinian ideology - the demand for "right of return" - which, at its core is a rejection of Jewish sovereignty. The unwillingness to entertain a pragmatic solution such as Ban Ki-Moon's offer reflects over six decades of Palestinian and Arab policy and is, in fact, both the genesis and perpetuation of the Palestinian refugee 'crisis' in the first place. It is precisely this type of event which intentionally creates and reinforces the intractability and radicalization of the Palestinian refugee population.
Though the fighting in Yarmouk and Syria is the most acute example of the simmering cauldron of Palestinian ideological violence, it is by no means the only one. Disturbingly, such activity regularly takes place at Palestinian refugee camps not only in war zones like Syria but also in Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority. As an UNRWA camp, Yarmouk is purportedly under the protection of United Nations auspices. Yet like several other UNRWA camps over the last several years, its inhabitants have not been well served by the organization. As an organization UNRWA has failed its constituency on every level – in terms of budgetary support; education; and protection from infiltration by extremist elements who instigate violence.
Many of the refugees from Syria have crossed over the border into Lebanon, seeking respite from the fighting. Yet the experience of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is anything but calm - the largest camp there, Ein el-Hilweh - the most radical of any of the Palestinian refugee camps - is permeated by ideological extremism and violence. As recently as last November, at least three people were killed in a clash there between supporters of the Iranian-backed Islamist terror faction Hezbollah, and Salafists (rival Islamic jihadists). As the administrators of the camp, UNRWA has been abysmally impotent at curbing the violence over the last decades, or blocking the permeation of radicalism within the camp (including its educational facilities).
All in all, despite rapid changes in countries across the Middle East following the Arab Spring that western observers hoped would lead to increased openness and democracy, Arab governments (many driven by Islamists) are still ignoring the needs of their own people while attempting to deflect all the region's troubles on the Israeli Palestinian conflict.
Even in UNRWA refugee camps within the Palestinian Authority's jurisdiction - an area which should enjoy the close cooperation of the governing authority with the UN agency - UNRWA has been notoriously incompetent at administering its own bureaucracy. The agency has managed to alienate Palestinians not residing in the camps or under the aegis of the UNRWA mandate. In December, as reported by Ma'an News Agency, "The heads of popular committees in refugee camps across the West Bank met recently in Ramallah and agreed to escalate protests against UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency). Demonstrators were expected to force the temporary halt of operations at all UNRWA offices to protest the dismissal of over 100 staff at the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, the committee chairman said." Those protests led to the agency closing three more offices due to threats to the safety of its employees; one violent clash ended with a "female employee (being) treated badly by protesters."
Earlier this week, in an illustration of how a culture of unhealthy dependency has been fostered among UNRWA camp residents, Palestinians violently clashed with their own security forces, protesting an end to the exemption of refugee camp residents from paying their electric bills.
The scope of the failure of UNRWA to advocate effectively or protect the residents of its camps is second only to its duplicity in aiding the perpetuation of the refugees' plight. Whether its institutional blindness is willful or merely a result of radical cooptation and negligence, the agency mandated with the task of 'providing assistance, protection, and advocacy' to Palestinian refugees has become an empty shell. Worse, it has created a culture of dependence and radicalism within its camps and continues to contribute to the failure of the integration of refugees as citizen participants even in the Palestinian Authority, where Palestinians are autonomous.
The devolution of events in Yarmouk and the violence of the protests in the West Bank demonstrate the impotence of UNRWA and its obsolescence.
Asaf Romirowsky PhD, who co-authored the article, is an adjunct scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Middle East Forum. Nicole Brackman PhD is a historian who writes extensively on Israeli and Middle Eastern politics.