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Christopher Columbus and the history of the Palestinian struggle

I was clearing out some rubbish the other day and came across a dog-eared history exercise book containing an essay I’d written about Christopher Columbus, “the explorer who discovered America in 1492”. Of course, it sounds ridiculous to say that out loud today but that is what our history teacher expected us to believe and, as gullible first year pupils at Stanley Grammar School, none of us had the nous to challenge him.

If only someone had stood up and said: “Please Sir, you’re wrong! It was the Vikings, Icelanders, Chinese and Africans who got there first. Why are you trying to brainwash us with this imperialistic rubbish?”

Here in the West, though, we seem to reinvent and adapt history casually to suit the political agenda or further empirical ideas, ambitions and propaganda to brainwash generations of children.

A classic example is the way in which the world is reacting to news of the besieged Palestinian Yarmouk refugee camp, which is just ten minutes away from the Syrian capital, Damascus. There are 18,000 Palestinian refugees trapped inside the camp, which is now under the control of ISIS. The UN has described the conditions therein as “catastrophic” and say that the refugees are slowly starving to death.

The UN has also warned that aid agencies are unable to negotiate a safe passage into Yarmouk, and that most are reduced to a food intake of just 400 calories per day, well below the World Health Organisation-recommended minimum of 2,100 calories for a healthy adult.

The warning was issued by Pierre Krähenbühl, the commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which is briefed to provide essential services for Palestinian refugees. While I do not dispute the veracity of his words, I am concerned that those Palestinians in Yarmouk have been struggling in barbaric conditions under Syrian dictator Bashir Al-Assad since fighting between his forces and rebels erupted shortly after the revolution began in 2011. The West, it seems, was quite happy to turn a blind eye to the horrendous conditions inside the refugee camp. Before 2011, it was home to 170,000 Palestinian refugees until ISIS charged in with little or no resistance from the otherwise ever-present Syrian military; does anyone know or care where 150,000 of those refugees have gone over the past four years?

It is clear that in terms of brutality there’s little difference between Assad’s forces and ISIS, although one seeks to commit atrocities quietly and without fanfare while the other glories in its own barbarism and can’t wait to upload and flaunt its war crimes and crimes against humanity on YouTube.

The situation for those living in the refugee camp is so bad that back in October 2013 Islamic scholars issued fatwas (legal opinions) allowing the occupants to eat dogs, cats and donkeys in order to survive. The drastic rulings were given during Eid Al-Adha as Muslims around the world were sacrificing goats and sheep to celebrate the religious festival. For the starving Palestinians in war-torn Yarmouk refugee camp, what was once haram (forbidden) for Muslims suddenly became halal (acceptable).

Western governments stayed silent, but now that ISIS has seized control of the camp – again, seemingly unchallenged by Assad’s forces, begging us to ask exactly who is supporting who – it has become politically expedient to posture and express outrage from Washington to Geneva. No one is asking how the ragtag bunch of extremists managed to get into Yarmouk while it is under siege by Assad’s forces; with downtown Damascus just 10 minutes away, remember.

However, I am glad that the world has woken up and taken notice of Krähenbühl’s words because he revealed this week that he has “witnessed scenes of unbearable suffering … [it] was unbearable three weeks ago and it has now deteriorated further.” Describing a successful intervention to save the residents of Yarmouk as a test for the entire international community, the UNRWA commissioner-general called on all parties – political and religious – to exert influence on the armed groups.

The UN Security Council met in an emergency, closed session late on Monday and issued a statement condemning the crimes committed against civilians in Yarmouk, calling on the warring militias to cease fighting and allow the safe passage of desperately-needed humanitarian aid into the camp. Even as the Security Council was in session, there were reports that the fighting was escalating with sporadic shelling and clashes between rebel forces repelling both Assad’s soldiers and ISIS. To compound the situation further, locals reported that the Syrian regime’s air force was also dropping its notorious barrel bombs.

According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, ISIS has started beheading members of a Palestinian group that continued to resist the militants, just as they have resisted Assad’s forces since 2011 in the struggle for control of the camp. The Palestinians trapped inside Yarmouk must think that human rights don’t apply to them. Indeed, Palestinian refugees living in desolate camps across the region probably look continually to the West and wonder why their plight, human rights and grievances have been more or less ignored since the creation of Israel and the subsequent Nakba (Catastrophe) in 1948.

History should judge harshly those who’ve had a hand in the atrocities meted out to the Palestinians over the past seven decades. While ISIS is just one group in a long line of war criminals, there have been many others who are just as guilty of crimes against humanity and who are also drenched in the blood of innocent Palestinians, and who also happen to be feted and supported by the same Western governments which condemn the extremists.

The truth is that the suffering of the Palestinians has been and continues to be shocking. Yarmouk in Syria has joined the ranks of other infamous places defining the living hell to which the Palestinians have been condemned by the international community. Places like Sabra and Shatilla in Lebanon, and Jenin in the West Bank, for example, echo the ethnic cleansing of the Nakba. The world’s continued silence over such recurring injustice makes us all complicit. The least we can do is make sure that the history of the Palestinians is not rewritten; generations to come must know and understand what the people of Palestine have been put through solely in order to sustain an alien state created in their homeland. The voyage of Columbus led to the genocide of Native Americans; the same fate should not befall the Palestinians.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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