Palestinian Refugees in Yarmouk Find Themselves at Ground Zero of Jihadist Battle

Once an oasis of calm, the camp in south Damascus is now under siege, torn between militants from Islamic State, armed opposition groups and forces that are loyal to the Assad regime.

Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
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A resident of the besieged Palestinian camp of Yarmouk weeps while waiting in line to collect UN humanitarian assistance, Feb. 24, 2014.
A resident of the besieged Palestinian camp of Yarmouk weeps while waiting in line to collect UN humanitarian assistance, Feb. 24, 2014.Credit: AP
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

The battles for control of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, which has been in the headlines over the past week after most of it was seized by Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), disclose the power struggles between the militias that ostensibly constitute the armed opposition to the regime of President Bashar Assad as well as Palestinian groups in the refugee camps in Syria and in Lebanon.

It is clear that the Palestinian refugees in the camp are paying the heaviest price for the unrest. The overwhelming majority of the camp’s inhabitants have been repeatedly forced to relocate to different camps, which has placed their dreams of returning to Palestine even further from their reach.

Yarmouk was once Syria’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, with a population of 180,000. In contrast to the refugee camps that were established in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, in Lebanon and in Jordan, after Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 or the 1967 Six-Day War, the Yarmouk camp was established in 1957. The Syrian government gathered all of the Palestinian refugees who were living in the Golan Heights, in the area surrounding Damascus and a few other locations in Syria into an area of 2.11 square kilometers, eight kilometers south of the southernmost reaches of Damascus.

Unlike the refugee camps in Lebanon, Yarmouk had schools, hospitals and apartment buildings allowing for high urban density, as well as many commercial establishments. It was as poor and overcrowded as the camps in other countries, but until recently Palestinian refugees considered it superior to its counterparts in Lebanon and Jordan.

Yarmouk’s young people were allowed to study at Syrian universities, and many of its residents were in professions that included medicine and engineering. The camp’s lively commercial life even drew non-Palestinian Syrians to move there.

There was no armed Palestinian presence in Yarmouk, in contrast to refugee camps in Lebanon, and until December 2012 it was for most intents and purposes just another south Damascus suburb. For a decade beginning in the mid-1990s, many Israeli Arabs with close relatives in the camp visited them by arrangement with Syria’s government.

Deterioration and escalation

When violence broke out in Syria in late 2012, with the arming of various factions that had begun to take over villages near Damascus, thousands of people from villages and southern Damascus fled to Yarmouk, believing that the Palestinian camp would remain out of the fray. By January 2013, the picture changed massively. Opposition militias entered the southern suburbs and the camp, facing off against Assad’s forces.

Palestinian forces in the camp did not intervene initially, but later militants from Ahmed Jibril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command joined the rebels, while Jibril loyalists fought alongside the Syrian army.

Small-arms battles, together with artillery and aerial bombardments by the Syrian army caused tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees to flee Yarmouk for Lebanon and Jordan. All efforts, including by the Palestinian Authority, to keep the camp out of the power struggles, were fruitless. Images of devastation and of victims began to come out of the camp. Tens of thousands of people were trapped in terrible conditions, including barrages and car bombs, which claimed dozens of lives.

Siege and hunger

Since July 2014 Syrian forces have kept a siege on the camp’s 20,000 remaining residents. There are reports of hunger so great that people have resorted to eating weeds and the corpses of animals. According to the Syrian Human Rights Observatory and other Syrian organizations, 154 refugees died of starvation between the start of the siege and February.

Communication between the Palestinian leadership and the Syrian government has led to food aid being brought into the camp, but recent reports indicate the siege has grown tighter in the past three months.

In the past week the situation has become even more complex, with Islamic State’s seizure of most of the camp. The Palestinian factions trade accusations of responsibility for the deterioration and involvement in the Syrian conflict.

Most of the blame is directed at Jibril, who is accused of being subservient to the Syrian regime and fighting alongside its forces. Some also blame Hamas, which is said to be fighting alongside the opposition under the flag of Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis.

Beirut’s Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations last week released a report based on eyewitness accounts from Yarmouk. Over the past five months, according to the report, power struggles have led to the assassination of a number of leaders, particularly Palestinians affiliated with Hamas, Fatah or aid organizations. Two weeks ago Hamas leader Yahya Hurani, who was active in medical assistance to the refugees, was killed. Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis accused Islamic State of the killing and arrested a number of Islamic State militants; Islamic State immediately retaliated with a raid by hundreds of its fighters on the camp, especially its southern parts.

There were heavy exchanges of fire, but Islamic State had the upper hand in both numbers and logistics and forced Aknaf and the other Palestinian forces to retreat. Nusra Front, an Al-Qaida affiliated group operating in Syria, which had shared control of the camp with the Palestinians, turned a blind eye to the entry of Islamic State on the one hand and on the other, prevented logistical help from reaching the Palestinian organizations.

The picture emerging is that Islamic State controls most of the southern part of the camp, while Syrian regime forces control the northern part, with smaller sectors still in the hands of the Palestinians. People left in the camp fear the continued siege, hunger and possibly a massacre of refugees by Islamic State.

Among possible scenarios is that Palestinian fighters will fight to the last bullet and then flee to other areas, or surrender to the regime or Islamic State. A second scenario is that Islamic State will receive reinforcements and ammunition and take over the rest of the camp, facing off directly with Syrian regime forces on the outskirts of Damascus. A third scenario is that the Syrian army will allow the Palestinian forces to receive logistical help so as to return control of the camp to them.

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