PLO: Yarmouk Camp Virtually Emptied of Civilians

Some 2,000 residents from stricken Palestinian refugee camp have recently evacuated to nearby villages.

Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
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Residents queue up to receive humanitarian aid at the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, in Damascus, March 11, 2015.
Residents queue up to receive humanitarian aid at the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, in Damascus, March 11, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

The evacuation of civilians from the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus is virtually complete, according to Palestine Liberation Organization data.

There have been reports in recent days of the departure of more than 2,000 people from Yarmouk, following much larger numbers of people who left earlier. Some 95% of the pre-war figure of 160,000 residents have departed since fighting began. There are reportedly just 4,000 to 6,000 people who have insisted on remaining in the camp, mostly in neighborhoods that are controlled by Palestinian organizations.

It has also been learned that several thousand refugees have been moved over the past week to a closed, empty compound with the consent of the Syrian government.

Meanwhile, the authoritative Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has denied reports published Thursday that armed fighters from ISIS (Islamic State) had withdrawn from the camp, and that the Al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front had taken up positions there instead.

The Syrian Observatory organization based its view on reports inside the camp, noting ISIS and Nusra Front control a combined 80 percent of Yarmouk, a camp where the remaining residents have been suffering from severe hunger. The Palestinian Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis and other Palestinian and Syrian factions are said to control the rest of the camp.

Palestinian sources assert the division of most of the camp between ISIS and Nusra Front is no longer relevant.

“They are working in coordination and every group is filling in for the other so it is no longer possible to speak about the withdrawal of one organization and the entry of another in the sense of a significant change,” a senior Palestinian identified with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad said.

According to eyewitness reports from within the camp, however, exchanges of fire have been continuing in an effort to confine ISIS and Nusra Front to specific neighborhoods of the camp. The Syrian army is also taking part in the fighting, bombing certain ISIS positions, although it appears to be in no particular hurry to act since factions opposed to the Syrian regime are fighting each other.

A source identified with Assad’s government said that the Syrian army has no interest at this stage of the fight in entering the Yarmouk camp as long as its defense lines are not breached in southern Damascus. That has led to a de-escalation of the violence and the beginnings of a status quo of sorts despite the fact that the humanitarian situation there is getting worse by the day.

There are reports of a severe shortage of drinking water and existing water reservoirs look more like swamps that are no longer suitable to draw from. There is also a lack of electricity.

PLO sources have noted that most of the efforts of the Palestinian leadership are still focused on getting as many civilian refugees as possible out of the camp, adding that the numbers remaining are relatively small.

The most recent crisis has revealed a major sense of confusion among the Palestinian leadership, with conflicting policy positions, including some who are pushing for military action. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is visiting Russia, is said to have raised the situation in Yarmouk with his Russian hosts.

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