I used to live in Yarmouk. It is Syria’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, home to about 150,000 Palestinians as well as hundreds of thousands of impoverished Syrians and Iraqi refugees. It lies a few kilometers south of Damascus and, until recently, was one of the centers of intellectual and cultural life in the Palestinian diaspora.
As all those who once walked its lively streets and remember its myriad sounds and smells, I am now haunted by images of its ravaged buildings, children feeding themselves on grass and stray cats, and scrawny bodies starved to death. Since July 2013, an estimated 200 people have died, and many others have been left without food or medication, leading to escalating incidents of starvation. This is in addition to the approximately 300 Palestinians killed under torture in the regime’s prisons, and the 900 who have died from shelling in the camp. There has been no drinkable water in Yarmouk for over one year and a half.
It is no surprise that, since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, the little media coverage Yarmouk has received in mainstream outlets, including from the BBC and the Guardian, has centered primarily on the unfolding humanitarian crisis. By focusing on this aspect of the story, however, mainstream reporting on Yarmouk has failed to highlight the Syrian regime’s role in facilitating the crisis in the camp.
Indeed, this a-historical representation of the humanitarian crisis in Yarmouk has worked significantly to the advantage of the Syrian regime. Along with a number of foreign pro-Syrian regime outlets, mainly from Iran and Russia, the Assad government has blamed the humanitarian crisis in Yarmouk entirely on a few radical opposition groups inside the camp. The regime’s allied foreign media outlets have claimed that Syrian-Palestinians have always backed the regime. To support this narrative, these outlets have selectively relied on a handful of pro-regime Palestinian factions in Syria.
Together, both pro-regime and mainstream media outlets have ignored the experiences of Palestinians who do not support the regime (though for different reasons), effectively concealing the truth behind the suffering under which Yarmouk’s population lives today.
To understand the crisis in Yarmouk it is critical to understand how the Syrian regime has created divisions between Syria’s Palestinian population, and how those divisions led to the present humanitarian situation in Yarmouk.
I visited Yarmouk for the last time in January 2012, and have been in close contact with residents of the refugee camp, since. Many of them are now refugees, twice over, in Lebanon, or, for those who could make it there, in Europe. The following account is based on testimonies I gathered from Yarmouk inhabitants during my visits to the camp in 2011 and 2012, and in Beirut, in the following years.
Manipulating Palestinian Politics Inside Syria
Historically, the Syrian regime has held an ambivalent and contradictory position toward the Palestinian struggle for liberation and independence. In 1976, then-Syrian President Hafez al Assad and father of current President Bashar al Assad, declared to Yasser Arafat: “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people, there is no Palestinian entity, there is only Syria. (…) Therefore it is we, the Syrian authorities, who are the true representatives of the Palestinian people”.
Hafez’s position vis-à-vis the Palestinian revolutionary movement reflected a wider attempt by the Syrian regime to create conflict between various Palestinian factions, in order to better dominate the region. Henry Kissinger, who greatly admired the elder Assad, later explained that “Hafez al Assad did not like the PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organization] because an independent Palestinian state was upsetting his long-term strategic goal, that of Greater Syria.” Indeed, as Kissinger pointed out, one of the Syrian regime’s strategies was to systematically ensure that Palestinian factions would not become powerful enough to undermine the Syrian regime’s aspirations for regional authority. Indeed, the Syrian regime helped to create some Palestinian groups, which it then used strategically to weaken the PLO and control the course of events affecting Palestinian communities in Syria and neighboring Lebanon.
Among these groups, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) of Ahmad Jibril, has been the most instrumental. The PFLP-GC was founded in 1968 as a group that splintered off from George Habash’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Ever since then, the organization has been a staunch supporter of the Syrian regime and a relentless enemy of the PLO. In 1976,when the Syrian army entered Lebanon and allowed Lebanese Christian militias to kill thousands of PLO fighters and Palestinian civilians in the siege on Tel al-Zaatar camp, the PFLP-GC remained loyal to Syria and did nothing to prevent the killings. Likewise, during the Lebanese War of The Camps (1985-87), the PFLP-GC assassinated numerous PLO fighters on behalf of the Syrian regime. Following the attack on Palestinians in Lebanon, in 1987, the PFLP-GC aided the Syrian regime by arresting and detaining any PLO fighters who had entered Syrian territory.
Other groups have received support from the Syrian regime too, including As-sai’qa and Fatah al-Intifada, which are respectively the Palestinian branch of the Syrian Ba’ath party and a group of dissidents from Arafat’s Fatah Part, and both of which remain tightly controlled by the Syrian regime to this day.
Palestinian Opposition to the Assad Regime during the Syrian Uprising – the Case of Yarmouk
These pro-Syrian regime, Palestinian factions have played a crucial role inside Syria, where they closely police the Palestinian camps and act as intelligence services within these populations. It is through these groups that the Syrian regime has effectively been able to depict Palestinians as loyal supporters.
But the positions and actions of the wider Palestinian civilian population in Syria contradict this claim significantly. Palestinians in Syria have suffered significantly under the regime and Palestinian pro-regime factions, and effectively become vigilant of their politics. Particularly within the context of the Syrian uprising, the split between dominant and powerful pro-regime factions and real, albeit resource poor, supporters of the Palestinian cause, has left the Palestinian civilian population without protection. In effect, these pro-regime groups have left the Palestinians at large exposed to the violence and terror of the Syrian regime, militant opposition groups, and on occasion Israeli forces, all of which have led to the current crisis in Yarmouk.
It all began a few months after the start of the Syrian uprising. Following a call by activists, on May 15, 2011, the day that commemorates the Nakba or “ catastrophe” (which refers to the creation of the State of Israel, and Israel’s expulsion of some 750,000 Palestinian inhabitants), Palestinian refugees in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria organized demonstrations along the borders between these countries and Israel. In Syria, the regime sanctioned a Nakba event on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.
Demonstrations against Israel in the Golan Heights are common: they have been held on a yearly basis for several decades, with support from the Syrian regime. Since the beginning of the uprising, they have been instrumental in restoring the regime’s credentials as a champion of resistance against Israel. The demonstrations usually include representatives from the Baath party and pro-regime Palestinian factions, who have their photos taken in front of crowds waving the Palestinian and Syrian flags.
At the 2011 commemoration, a group of young Palestinians, inspired by the uprisings across the Arab region and enervated by the escalating situation in Syria, did what no Palestinian civilians in Syria had attempted since the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights: they crossed the Syrian military zone leading to the Israeli border in order to reach Palestine by themselves. Hundreds of demonstrators followed them and reached the other side, where they took the only Israeli patrol on site by surprise. Israel had not anticipated trouble on the usually calm Syrian border.
Soon, Israeli soldiers called for reinforcements and opened fire on the crowd, killing four Palestinians and wounding dozens of others. Despite being accompanied by bodyguards and supporting fighters, the leaders of the Palestinian factions who were present, including PFLP-GC’s Ahmad Jibril and PFLP’s leader Maher Taher, did not intervene to prevent the killing of their Palestinian companions. What shocked Syrian Palestinians even more was that the path across the border leading to Palestine, was not riddled with mines, as the Syrian regime had always claimed.
Following this incident, Palestinian factions, and notably the pro-regime PFLP-GC, organized a similar event, on June 5, 2011, the day of the commemoration of the Naksa (the Arab defeat of 1967). The scheduled eventgave rise to heated discussions in the refugee camps, as Palestinians found themselves confronting an unanticipated question: would this open invitation enable them to freely enter their homeland, or was it a trap set by the PFLP-GC? By now, they knew that there were ways to reach the occupied Golan. However, the experience of May 15 had also taught them the Palestinian factions would not protect them.
On the evening of June 4, the Syrian regime cancelled the event. Nevertheless, the government and the PFLP-GC prepared buses the following day to take groups of young Palestinians from Yarmouk to the Golan Heights. Upon arriving at the Golan crossing, they were welcomed by Anwar Raja, the PFLP-GC’s head of public relations, who was surrounded by journalists and reporters from several official Syrian channels. Israeli soldiers were also present. As young Palestinians attempted to walk to the border, the Israeli soldiers opened fire on the crowd, killing twenty-five and injuring more than 350. Neither Anwar Raja nor his bodyguards went anywhere close to the border – nor did they defend their Palestinian compatriots.
The dramatic events triggered anger from the Syrian Palestinian community. The following day, as the funerals of the martyrs took place in Yarmouk, inhabitants turned against representatives of the pro-regime, Palestinian factions and chased them out of the cemetery. They then proceeded to walk to the PFLP-GC offices to denounce those groups allied with the Syrian government for co-opting the Palestinian cause.At the PFLP-GC’s offices, they are said to have been met with machine-gun fire.
The bloody repression further fueled the demonstrators’ anger, and they began calling for “the fall of the factions” (el sha’ab yourīd esqāt el fasā’il). By referencing the slogan of the ongoing Arab revolutions, the people of Yarmouk signified the possible start of their own uprising.
The Sealing Off of Yarmouk
In response to this opposition, the PFLP-GC stepped up its security operations in the refugee camps in the months that followed. In Yarmouk alone, over 1,000 Palestinians were arrested and interrogated by the Syrian security services dedicated to handling Palestinians in Syria. The PFLP-GC began arming its supporters, notwithstanding criticism from other Palestinian factions and the Palestinian community in general. PFLP-GC militias soon appeared in Yarmouk camp. The militias supported the Syrian army’s operations in neighboring areas, and detained and murdered people opposed to the regime.
The situation in Yarmouk continued to escalate. On December 16, 2012, the regime began systematically shelling the camp with MiG military aircraft, targeting civilian buildings, including hospitals, schools, and mosques, where refugees from other parts of the country had found shelter. In the following days, a new mass exodus of Palestinians took place. An estimated 200,000 people fled the regime’s shelling of Yarmouk.
Meanwhile, armed opposition groups, including militant fighters, started entering Yarmouk from neighboring areas, facing no obstacles on the way to the empty camp. The arrival of these armed groups gave the regime a pretext to seal off Yarmouk. Initially, it was still possible to enter and leave the camp through a single checkpoint, staffed by PFLP-GC fighters at Yarmouk’s northern entrance. Passing through the checkpoint was treacherous though – indeed, the PFLP-GC would frequently harass young women, and often arrested civilians particularly young men. Snipers from or allied with the regime also operated in the area. Some Palestinian friends from Yarmouk told me that, when crossing the checkpoint, “death seemed closer at each step.”
As of July 2013, the regime has placed the camp under total siege, preventing anyone from entering or leaving. The siege has enabled radical opposition groups to grow within Yarmouk. Jabhat al Nusra, an Al Qaeda-affiliated group and one of two main forces “opposing” the Syrian regime, currently controls about sixty percent of Yarmouk. Nusrah regularly harasses inhabitants, for instance, by imposing gender segregation and strict dress codes on women. The group has also targeted activists of all kinds. Most recently, Nusra fighters publicly executed two young men on charges of blasphemy, including twenty-seven-year-old Marai Zakaria, who had defected from a regime-allied faction to support the Free Syrian uprising.
The Syrian Regime Is Responsible for the Crisis in Yarmouk
The horrific humanitarian catastrophe Palestinians in Yarmouk suffer from is the result of a complicated series of events, which involved the Syrian regime and its allied Palestinian factions. Many have been left to die of starvation and illness. While humanitarian aid to the remaining 18,000 people in Yarmouk is desperately needed, the UN, like other humanitarian agencies, has faced significant difficulties in bringing aid to the Palestinian population. At the time of this writing, after a brief truce that allowed a few dozen food packages in, the Syrian regime has decided, once again, to seal the camp off. This turn of events, like so many others, demonstrates that ultimately the power to alleviate the atrocious conditions in the camp lies with the Syrian regime alone.