Monday, August 29, 2011

Syria: Where is the Outrage?

Jerold S. Auerbach

Like father, like son: it is well documented, by now, that there are no limits to the brutality that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is willing to inflict upon his subjects. Even in a region known for the cruelty that rulers wreak on their people, Assad may be rivaled only by President Ahmadinijad of Iran, his ideological inspiration and military patron. Assad's most recent outrage occurred during the government assault in Latakia, the main Syrian port city. According to United Nations figures, 10,000 Palestinian residents fled from their refugee camp during four days of unrelenting attacks by government military and security forces.

For once, Palestinian Authority officials did not exaggerate the tribulations of their people. According to an adviser to President Abbas, the Syrian assault was a "crime against humanity" inflicted by a leader who had "lost rationality." It would be difficult to challenge that indictment.

Some 500,000 Palestinians live in Syria. They claim descent from the 70,000 Palestinians who fled from their homes to Syria in 1948, when armies from five Arab nations invaded the fledgling State of Israel with the avowed intention of destroying it. Most came from northern Israel: Haifa, Safed, Akko, Tiberias and Nazareth. Originally housed in deserted military barracks, Latakia Palestinians were relocated to an unofficial refugee camp in 1956. There they have lived ever since.

The Syrian government, like those of other Arab states, imposed and perpetuated refugee status on Palestinians to prevent their integration into Syrian society. What better way to manipulate them for world consumption as victims of Israeli conquest, brutality and expulsion?

The legal status of Palestinians in Syria is still determined by legislation from half a century ago that bestowed the same responsibilities and duties enjoyed by Syrian citizens - other than nationality and political rights. That discriminatory principle was ratified in the Casablanca Protocol (1965), which stipulated that Arab countries must not grant citizenship to Palestinians (as Israel did).

Subsequent Syrian legislation explicitly excluded Palestinians from the benefits of citizenship, the better "to preserve their original nationality." In this effort, it has been ably abetted ever since by the United Nations, which established a separate Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Middle East (UNRWA) in 1948. It remains the only agency concerned with refugees from a particular conflict or region.

UNRWA remains complicit in this discrimination throughout the Arab world, lest its raison d'être (and generous funding) for serving nearly 5 million Palestinian "refugees," whose status is now conferred by claims of ancestry not birthplace, vanish. Any linkage to hostility toward the world's only Jewish state was, and still is, purely intentional.

Given the international hysteria - and media coverage - that accompanies the announcement of every house that the government of Israel authorizes in east Jerusalem or the West Bank, the muted response to the flight of ten thousand Palestinians from Latakia is astonishing. Yet it is altogether predictable.

The world, including the government of the United States, cares little about Palestinians unless the State of Israel can be blamed for their plight. Indeed, the American government, yet to relocate its embassy to Israel's capital city, does not even permit its own citizens who are born in Jerusalem to identify Israel as their country of birth.

The recent sound of silence from Washington was loud and clear. The best that Secretary of State Clinton could muster after the forced Palestinian exodus from Latakia was to proclaim the benefit of an international consensus against the Assad regime. "It's not going to be any news if the United States says Assad needs to go. O.K., fine, what's next?" That, it seems, exemplifies the highly touted "leadership from behind" that the Obama administration defends.

As for the minimal step of recalling the American ambassador from Syria - not mere words, but a genuine act -that seems beyond the capacity to imagine. Indeed, The New York Times recently castigated Saudi Arabia for only belatedly recalling its Ambassador to Syria but it remained silent about the failure of the Obama administration to do even that much.

Responding to the Palestinian exodus from Latakia, UNRWA officials, with something less than the indignation (if not outrage) that accompanies their incessant criticism of Israel, sounded only mildly disappointed in. "A forgotten population has now become a disappeared population," lamented Christopher Gunness, agency spokesman in Jersualem (where Palestinians are citizens of Israel). It was, he concluded, "very, very worrying."

It is worse than that. It is, above all, a tragedy for 10,000 Palestinian victims of the brutal Assad dictatorship. But it also underscores the mendacious double standard by which much of the world, including the current administration in Washington, judges - and persistently calumnies - Israel.

Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Brothers at War: Israel and the Tragedy of the Altalena, recently published by Quid Pro Books.

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