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Gaza and Yarmouk: fearful symmetry

Isn't it utterly absurd that there are some aghast at the suffering of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and utterly unconcerned with that in Yarmouk, the Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus now besieged by forces loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad... and vice versa...? A brutal winter storm in the region has exacerbated the suffering in both blockaded enclaves, and most Palestinians assuredly grasp the obvious symmetry. In some quarters, however, a sort of ideological blindness seems to prevail: Assad's apologists are of course outraged at the agony in Gaza, but find that in Yarmouk invisible. The US State Department, in turn, exploits Yarmouk for propaganda against Assad, while displaying no such concern for Gaza...

More than 4,000 people have been evacuated from flood-damaged homes in northern Gaza, with many streets under two meters of water after four days of torrential rains. "Large swathes of northern Gaza are a disaster area with water as far as the eye can see," the UN Relief Works Agency (UNRWA), which administers refugee camps in the Palestinian territory, said in a statement. This comes as Gaza's 1.8 million people have also been enduring daily 12-hour blackouts since the territory's lone power plant halted operations last month due to a fuel shortage. Following indirect negotiations between the Hamas administration in Gaza and the Fatah government in the West Bank, Qatar is to donate $10 million to supply the Strip's plant with enough fuel to last three months. (Haaretz, Dec. 15; AP, Dec. 14)

The Gaza disaster has, of course, become a political football. The Hamas administration's Disaster Response Committee is charging that Israeli authorities intentionally opened the floodgates of dams just east of the Strip, intentionally inundating nearby villages within the territory—a charge that has been eagerly picked up by several pro-Palestinian blogs, e.g. In GazaMiddle East Monitor, citing local news reports based on Hamas claims, names the Wadi Sofa Dam east of Rafah, where Mayor Issa Nashar apparently confirmed the claim: "Israel has indeed opened the dam which led to drowning the neighboring areas with accumulated rain water up to one meter deep." 

Times of Israel, in turn, accuses the Gaza administration of making the whole thing up, in a Dec. 18 story headlined: "How Hamas used the weather to defame Israel: Islamic government falsely claims Israel flooded Gaza, by opening dams that don’t exist." Moussa Abu Marzouk, deputy head of Hamas' political bureau, apparently wrote to his Facebook page: "The Zionists, of course, have taken advantage of the situation, sending some pumps and supplies which they had deprived the besieged Gaza Strip of... Later, the occupation forces opened the Wadi Salqa dams to sink dozens of Palestinian homes in the central region of the Gaza Strip, thereby sending two contradictory messages!" But a spokesman for the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories told Times of Israel that rumors of Israel flooding Gaza "repeat themselves every year when Gaza is drenched in rain," adding: "One can assume that the considerations motivating the Palestinian side [on this matter] were political rather than professional." Note that this falls short of an unequivocal denial.

Amira Hass notes the claims in Ha'aretz Dec. 15:

Gaza officials blamed Israel for the flooding, saying it caused Wadi Gaza to overflow and flood residential neighborhoods by opening dams outside the Strip. Palestinian sources said these dams normally keep the water level in Gaza low.

Nehemia Shahaf, the Israeli municipal official responsible for the drainage system in part of the northern Negev, said there was one dam in the area, a one-meter cement structure in the Tze’elim area that directs water to a reservoir in Israeli territory, but that it could not be opened or closed. Shahaf said the water level was so high that the dam couldn’t stop it from reaching Gaza.

As Hamas and Israel bicker over the charges, the world is paying little note to the dire situation at besieged Yarmouk. The Workforce for Palestinians in Syria civil organization told  Ma'an News Agency Dec. 17 that two refugees were killed as the camp came under shelling by government forces, and an elderly woman died from exposure to cold. The camp, in fact, faces the same conditions as Gaza: lack of fuel, gas and electricity, compounded by intermittent aerial strikes. 

More than 1,500 Palestinians have been killed in the Syria conflict, and around 250,000 Palestinian refugees have been forced to flee their  camps in Syria due to violence. Prior to the conflict, 600,000 Palestinian refugees lived in Syria. Yarmouk is controlled by anti-Assad factions. Attempts to broker a cease-fire in which the siege of the camp would be lifted in exchange for a guarantee that it not be used for launching attacks on regime forces have repeatedly broken down.

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