Inside Yarmouk (file)
Inside Yarmouk (file)Reuters

Attention is focused on the Islamic State (ISIS)-besieged Yarmouk "Palestinian refugee camp" in Syria – which is actually a normative neighborhood in Damascus.

ISIS jihadists and murderers have overrun the neighborhood in recent days, murdering civilians using firing squads or beheadings, and wantonly destroying apartment buildings. 

A Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) arrived in Damascus for talks on "helping residents" in Yarmouk. Hundreds of families have been evacuated from the neighborhood – the latest stage in the population depletion from 112,000 in 2002 to some 18,000 today.

The humanitarian crisis in Yarmouk has turned attention to what news reports around the world call a "Palestinian refugee camp" – when in fact it is not officially recognized as such in Syria, and is rather a city (madina) in the Damascus Governorate.

Yarmouk was established in 1957 on an area outside Damascus to accommodate refugees who were squatters, according to UNRWA, which largely administers the area. One is left to wonder what the Syrian authorities did with these "squatters" for nearly a decade, after they supposedly left Israel during the 1948 War of Independence.

The area later developed into a thriving neighborhood. Lina Sinjab reported for BBC in August 2010 that "although [Yarmouk] is identified as a [refugee] camp, there are no tents or slums in sight. It is a residential area with beauty salons and internet cafes. The Palestinians who live here are well integrated into society, some even hold government posts."

Residents of the camp number many professionals, including doctors, engineers and civil servants.

This of course raises the question: what is UNRWA – the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees – still doing there?

The UN body operates 20 elementary schools and eight preparatory schools in the "camp," sponsors two women's program centers, and runs three health care centers. Two of the centers received upgrades in 1996 with contributions from Canada, while a year later, six schools were upgraded with contributions from the United States and a kindergarten was built with Australian funding.

This past Monday, the UN Security Council demanded humanitarian aid access to the "refugees." The 15-member body called "for the protection of civilians in the camp for ensuring a humanitarian access to the area including by providing life-saving assistance," said Jordan's ambassador Dina Kawar, the current council chair.

Prof. Nitza Nachmias of the Jewish-Arab Center in Haifa University has said that if it wasn’t for UNRWA and its half-billion dollar annual budget, the Palestinian refugee problem would have been solved long ago.

There is actually "no such thing as Palestinian refugees," she told Arutz Sheva back in 2010. "If people would stop calling the places in which they live ‘refugee camps,’ then they would see that these places are just like villages and towns anywhere else, and the inhabitants are totally rehabilitated."

“According to international law,” Nachmias explained, “a refugee is an individual or family that was forced to run away – but this definition does not extend to children [of the original refugees], a community or a group."

"The only exception to this rule is the Palestinians," for whom the UN has a totally different – and much more inclusive – definition.

An organization called The Israel Initiative has stated, “UNRWA's mandate is one that has perpetuated the refugee situation for more than 60 years (!) and continues to keep the Palestinian refugees in a situation of humanitarian catastrophe. Billions of dollars given to the agency throughout the years by Western governments and organizations have not led yet to the rehabilitation of even one family.”