While the bloody civil war in Syria rages on, Israel keeps a watchful eye on the Israeli-Syrian border, making sure the fighting between the rebels and Assad’s forces doesn’t spill over into the Golan Heights.
One of the rebel groups calls itself the Martyrs of the Yarmouk Brigades. Yarmouk, it should be noted, is a very loaded word in this region’s ethos. It was on the Yarmouk River, a major tributary of the Jordan River, south of the Golan Heights, where, in August 636 C.E., the Arab forces of the Rashidun Caliphate defeated the Christian forces of the Byzantine Empire, opening the way to a series of Muslim victories over Christianity.
It was surprising, therefore, to hear a spokesman of the group — which is suspected of having links to al-Qaeda — talk over the phone to correspondents of the Times of Israel, promising that “[t]he Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade has no international aspirations; we are only in conflict with the Assad regime.” The spokesman, Laeth Horan, even went a step further: “There is nothing between us and Israel. We only have demands of Assad, even after the war.”
Only time will tell if this is true, but in the meantime, Yarmouk has more to remind us, this time in the Palestinian context.
In the summer of 1970, Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat, in one of his most reckless gambles, challenged the Jordanian regime by trying to establish a “mini Palestine” in northern Jordan. In “Black September” of that year, King Hussein’s loyal Bedouins crushed the Palestinian uprising and kicked Arafat and his followers to Lebanon.
Refusing to learn the lesson, Arafat repeated the same mistake in Lebanon, shattering the already fragile equilibrium between the various religious communities of the country. In 1976, his Yarmouk Brigade was fighting Christian forces in the Tal-al-Zaatar Battle. Robert Fisk of the Independent told the L.A. Weekly in 2002 that the Palestinian troops “were given permission to surrender with a cease-fire. But at the last moment, Arafat told his men to open fire on the Christian forces who were coming to accept the surrender. I think Arafat wanted more Palestinian ‘martyrs’ in order to publicize the Palestinian position in the war.”
All this came to an end in 1982, when Israel had enough of the Palestinian harassment coming from Lebanon. In the First Lebanon War, the Israel Defense Forces defeated the Syrian and Palestinian forces (including the same Yarmouk Brigade) and kicked the PLO leadership out of the country.
Our next stop in the Yarmouk tour is Baghdad. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1991, Arafat rushed to congratulate him in his palace in Al-Yarmouk neighborhood. This turned out to be the most expensive kiss in history, because when Kuwait was freed, it retaliated by expelling 400,000 Palestinians who had worked and lived there (need we mention that some lived in Al-Yarmouk neighborhood in Kuwait City?).
We can go on forever with this historical “Yarmouking,” except that in the meantime there is a human tragedy going on near Damascus and, more precisely, at the Yarmouk camp, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which since 1949 has been trying to alleviate the living conditions of the Palestinian refugees, 130,000 Palestinian refugees have fled their homes in Yarmouk since December 2012, and the remaining 20,000 are being crushed between the forces fighting each other in Syria.
I don’t envy Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. What hope can he offer his brothers and sisters in Yarmouk, or in the other refugee camps in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza? That they would some day return to the homes they left in 1948, in Jaffa and Haifa? Like his predecessor, Arafat, he knows perfectly well that this is impossible.
Abbas, however, is more sincere than his predecessor (which is not saying much); while Arafat was always talking about the refugee issue from both sides of his mouth, Abbas, who had fled his hometown of Safed (in northern Israel) in 1948, told Israeli Channel Two Television in November 2012 that he wanted to visit Safed: “It’s my right to see it,” he said. But then he added the highly significant words: “but not to live there.”
Then he went on to outline his vision: “Palestine now for me is the ’67 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. This is now and forever . . . . This is Palestine for me. I am [a] refugee, but I am living in Ramallah. I believe that [the] West Bank and Gaza is Palestine and the other parts [are] Israel.”
This is where we can see a ray of hope. Let Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agree on a Palestinian state with the ’67 borders, with a fair land swap to compensate the Palestinians for the Israeli settlements that will remain in Israel’s territory. Then a new, ambitious Marshall Plan to settle the Palestinian refugees can be launched. When Syria calms down, the refugees in Yarmouk, supported by generous funds, can decide whether they want to stay in Syria, move to the Palestinian state or regroup in another country. This is not a humanitarian move only; it is in the best interests of Israel: When the kids in Yarmouk refugee camp have a future, my grandchildren will be safer.
Yarmouk can then stand for other things, not for bloodshed and misery only — for example, a soccer game between Maccabi Haifa and the Kuwaiti Al-Yarmouk club; a discussion of the Arab League Peace initiative in Al-Yarmouk district in Riyadh; a cooperation agreement between the Technion and Yarmouk University in Irbid, Jordan; and more. Insh’Allah!
Uri Dromi blogs at jewishjournal.com/jerusalemview. This column originally appeared in The Miami Herald.