In contrast to the garbage coming out of MSM reports on Yarmouk, and from war-mongering front groups like Avaaz (see James Boswell’s Mar 2015 article on Avaaz at his website Wall of Controversy), HRW, Amnesty (garbage which as Tim Anderson pointed out “phoney humanitarians” endorse, noting, “Fake concern for refugees, while you back war which spawns millions of refugees.”)…here are a number of links and updates on the situation in the Yarmouk neighbourhood of Damascus, with a critical overview by Sharmine Narwani at the end.
“Refugees evacuated by the Syrian Arab Army from takfiri-besieged Yarmouk, a Palestinian suburb of south Damascus, under the supervision of Syrian Minister for Social Welfare, Ms Kinda al Shammat.” –Tim Anderson. Photos from Syria 24 English FB page
“I don’t hear a peep out of DC about the Gaza siege, for instance. The Syrian government has every right to blockade the border areas between Yarmouk and Damascus to prevent extremist gunmen from entering the capital. I have been in Yarmouk several times, including last year, and have talked to aid workers inside the camp, including UNRWA. The Syrian government, in their view, assists in getting aid and food to refugee populations inside the camp – contrary to western narratives and those activists who report for groups like the Electronic Intifada – most of whom who have not set foot in Yarmouk since the early days of the conflict.”
“Yarmouk has been infiltrated several times by the NATO-GCC-backed Islamists, and each time the Syrian Arab Army has had to dig them out. Now SAA-backed Palestinian militia do most of that work, on this occasion against ISIS helped by Jabhat al Nusra.
It is certainly the case that some sectarian Palestinians helped al Nusra into Yarmouk, in the past, but it is just absurd war propaganda (identical to that of the NATO-Islamists and the US State Department) to suggest that the Syrian Government would ‘punish’ tens of thousands of Palestinians for this. Syria has hosted these refugees for decades.”
Complete Battle Update from Yarmouk Camp; 1,600 Civilians Escorted to Safety, Apr 7, 2015, Al Masdar News
“…With the firefights engulfing 30th Street, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) – in coordination with the Palestine Liberation Army (PLA) and Fatah Al-Intifada – attacked the ISIS militants on Libya Street, recapturing the territory lost to the enemy combatants on Sunday night.
The Palestinian resistance forces are now in control of 40 percent of the Al-Yarmouk and Falasteen Camp Districts, along with the majority of Al-Tadamon – the firefights at the latter district involves the Islamist forces not loyal to ISIS.
As a result of their success, the Palestinian resistance forces were able to secure the safety of 1,600 civilians inside the district by creating a safe passage to the north, where they were greeted by aid workers and soldiers of the Syrian Arab Army.The SAA soldiers escorted the civilians to safety at a nearby camp and then transferred those seeking medical assistance to a local hospital….”Humanitarian aid distributed among Yarmouk Camp residents who escaped terrorism, Apr 8, 2015, SANA
“General Authority for Palestinian Arab Refugees (GAPAR) and the United Nations Relief and Worker Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), Supported by the Syrian government, distributed packages of humanitarian aid during past few days to residents of al-Yarmouk Camp, Damascus countryside, who escaped the criminality of the terrorist organizations.
GAPAR said in a statement that it along with UNRWA distributed assistance to al-Yarmouk Camp residents who resorted to Zeinab al-Hilalia makeshift center, and it follows up with the relevant bodies the situation of those who reside in Yalda area sustain them with food, apparel and hygiene.
GAPAR pointed out that the medical teams of UNRWA and Palestinian Red Cross Society (PRCS) medical center treated a number of patients from Zeinab al-Hilalia makeshift center and provided them with the required medicines, in additon to submitting those of critical conditions to hospital.
It added that “the violent clashed between the terrorist groups occupying the Camp prevent the residents from reaching to food and hygiene aid, which the Syrian government and UNRWA have been keen on providing constantly to alleviate the residents’ suffering.”
On April 4th, Secretary of the Palestinian Revolution Factions Alliance Khaled Abdul-Majid announced that ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists committed massacres inside al-Yarmouk camp, killing at least 9 people.”
Recall this, from May 2013: Syria: Civilians Come Under Fire From Rebels
“We knew what was coming and so wore flak jackets and helmets. The demonstrators knew what was coming, had no protection, and still walked straight into the line of fire.
The demonstrators were predominantly Syrian Palestinians, many from the Yarmouk district of Damascus who had fled when it was taken over by opposition forces eight months ago.
Some screamed at us: “Please tell the world the truth! We don’t want the fighters here, we want the army to kill them!”
A few carried the portrait of President Assad, others the Syrian or Palestinian flag.
One woman called the Free Syrian Army (FSA) “dogs” and said the men in Yarmouk were not Syrians but from Chechnya and Afghanistan. We could not verify this.
…About 1,000 people were in the demonstration. A few religious leaders and women were in the front rows as they approached where the opposition forces had a clear field of fire.
The shooting began almost immediately. A man went down, followed by others. The army officer who had insisted on escorting us was hit by shrapnel.
The demonstrators broke ranks and fled back across no man’s land, some of the women crying with fear.
As they passed us a man stopped and shouted that he was sure the fighters were not Syrians but men paid to come to Damascus and kill people. Another man shouted that they were “animals”.
“My first visit to Yarmouk took place a few days after 20 people were killed in the Palestinian camp’s first major shelling incident on August 2, 2012. Residents showed me the damage caused by the first mortar – which hit the roof of a small apartment building not far from Tadamoun, a Damascus suburb where rebels and security forces were clashing daily.
As bystanders rushed to investigate the damage, a second shell hit the narrow street outside where onlookers had congregated, killing and injuring dozens.
Foreign media headlines suggested the Syrian government was shelling Yarmouk, but Palestinians inside expressed doubt. Some said these were rebel mortars from adjacent neighborhoods, but it was clear nobody could provide definitive answers for what may simply have been a series of stray shells.
Yarmouk, once home to around a million Syrians and 160,000 Palestinian refugees, was an oasis of calm that summer day of my visit.
…A year-and-a-half later, in March 2014, I visited Yarmouk again. The camp is unrecognizable now, and the pictures we see don’t do justice to the damage.
At the entrance of the camp, I was greeted by armed Palestinians who are part of a 14-group ‘volunteer force’ formed for the purpose of protecting Yarmouk and ejecting the rebel fighters deep inside the camp. The group falls under the umbrella of the Popular Palestinian Committees for the Liberation of Yarmouk….
There’s a lone Syrian among them. He was raised in Yarmouk and is a Palestinian as far as he’s concerned.
The stories these fighters tell me is nothing I have read in English, or in any mainstream publication outside Syria. Theirs is a story that is black-and-white. Thousands of Islamist fighters invaded and occupied Yarmouk on December 17, 2012, and Palestinians and Syrians alike fled the camp, literally beginning the next day.
The militants, they say, systematically destroyed the camp, killed people, looted homes, hospitals – anything they could get their hands on. They insist that the rebels could not have captured Yarmouk without the help of Hamas, and are convinced that Hamas supporters are still inside the camp, now members of Al-Nusra Front, AknafBeit al-Maqdes, Ohdat al-Omariyya, Ahrar al-Yarmouk, Zahrat al Mada’en and other rebel groups that they say occupy the camp. They claim Hamas employed and provided financial assistance to displaced Syrians who escaped conflict elsewhere and settled in Yarmouk.
“They hired them for this conflict,” says one.
The finger-pointing at Hamas persists throughout all my conversations with refugees in the three separate camps I visit in Syria. While all Hamas officials exited the country early on in the conflict, the fact remains that many Palestinians affiliated with Hamas did not. On the outside, we understand Hamas is not there, but within the camps, Palestinians identify the individuals they accuse of sedition as “Hamas people.”
This blurred line has provided Hamas’ political leadership with ‘plausibledeniability’ against accusations that it has aided Islamist rebels in the camps.
The fuzzy lines first became clear to me in the autumn of 2011 when a Hamas official confided that they had to “remove some people” from these areas who were displaying increasing sympathy with the Syrian opposition.
But back to the Palestinian fighters in Yarmouk.
My attention is diverted by the stories one of them tells me about members of the Palestine Liberation Army (PLA) who were assassinated in the lead-up to the occupation of Yarmouk.
From the age of 18, all male Palestinian refugees in Syria take part in compulsory military service in the PLA for a period of 18 months. They are trained directly and solely by the PLA, but weaponry and facilities are provided by the Syrian army. Once upon a time, the PLA was also based in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon where their mandate was to cooperate with the host government – today, the only PLA base left in the entire Arab world is in Syria.
I head over to the makeshift headquarters of the PLA to find out more. They have temporarily relocated from Moadamiyah in West Ghouta, a rebel-occupied suburb of Damascus. There, I meet with General Hassan Salem and General Nabil Yacoub, two senior officials who report directly to PLA commander Major-General Tariq al-Khadra.
The PLA’s mission is “to liberate Palestine” and the generals tell me they “do not play a role in defending [Palestinian] camps during the Syrian conflict.” By all accounts, this appears to be true.
But in 2012, the PLA was dragged into Syria’s crisis quite unwillingly. On January 5, Major Basil Amin Ali was assassinated by an unknown assailant in Aarbin – east of Jobar in the Damascus suburbs – while he was fixing his car by the side of the road.
Colonel Abdul Nasser Mawqari was shot dead inside Yarmouk the following month, on February 29.
A week later, on March 6, Colonel RidaMohyelddin al-Khadra – a relation of PLA commander, General Khadra – was assassinated in Qatna, 20km south of Damascus, while driving home in his car.
On June 5, PLA Brigadier-General Dr. Anwar Mesbah al-Saqaa was killed in AadawiStreet in Damascus by explosives planted in his car, under his seat. He had left his home in Barzeh and was dropping his daughter off at university. Both she and the driver of the car were injured.
A few weeks later, on June 26, Colonel Ahmad Saleh Hassan was assassinated in Sahnaya, also in the Damascus suburbs.
General Abdul RazzakSuheim, his son, and a soldier guarding them were killed on July 26 in rebel-occupied Yalda, the neighborhood adjacent to Yarmouk – a week before those first mortars killed 20 residents of the camp.
On July 11, in a full-on attack against the PLA, opposition militants kidnapped and killed 14 Palestinian soldiers heading back to Nairab camp on a weekend break from training exercises in Mesiaf, 48km southwest of Hama. According to the PLA generals I interviewed, the soldiers were divided into two groups – half were shot, while the other half were tortured and then beheaded….
…I meet with the head of the Syrian Red Crescent Society (SARC). This is the group that functions as the hands and feet of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) inside Syria. It is a neutral group and goes to great pains to stay impartial so that it can operate within both rebel- and government-controlled areas.
In Yarmouk and other camps, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS) is supposed to take the field lead, but PRCS supplies and equipment were so completely ransacked by militants, that SARC has provided ambulances, medicines and aid workers to keep up with demand. SARC workers were in Yarmouk during my visit, and helped in evacuating several residents who had been approved for medical treatment. Some of the ill and injured are transported to PRCS medical facilities, but most are treated at Syrian hospitals.
I meet Dr. Abdul Rahman Attar, the president of SARC, and ask him if the Syrian army ever entered Palestinian camps while civilians were still in residence.
“In my opinion, no.” he says.
“Everything happening in Yarmouk is in the hands of Palestinians, not Syrians,” says Attar. “The Syrian role is only in facilitation.”
That theme continues with everyone I ask. The only exception to this, say Palestinians of all backgrounds, is when camps are entirely empty of civilians – as in Daraa and Handarat. Only then does the Syrian army enter to fight rebels.
Dr. Shaker Shihabi is the PRCS’s director in Syria and a member of the executive council of the parent organization, headquartered in Ramallah, Palestine. The PRCS runs three large hospitals in Syria: Bissan in Homs, Yaffa Hospital in el-Mezzeh, Damascus, and Palestine Hospital in Yarmouk camp. Some of the smaller clinics they used to run in Nairab, Sbeineh, Khan Danoun and Douma were destroyed in the Syrian conflict.
The PRCS is one of the few NGOs still operating inside the rebel-occupied part of Yarmouk camp. They run the only functioning, non-rebel medical facility inside the camp, the Palestine Hospital.
“We only have two doctors and some volunteer workers left there. We lost two doctors and five staff members in this crisis – they were killed. The last one was a few months ago – Diab Muhanna, an assistant pharmacist – he was shot outside the hospital,”says Shihabi.
Access to medical care inside Yarmouk was further crippled when “about eight cars, six ambulances, were stolen (after rebels occupied the camp), they robbed our biggest storage facility for drugs and medical supplies.”
Earlier this year, PRCS helped in the evacuation of “more than 3,000” civilians in Yarmouk. The Syrian government gives final approval for who gets out.“They screen for fighters,” Shihabi says.
“Hunger,” he says, is a problem in the camp, and while civilians receive food boxes from UNRWA and other international NGOs, Shihabi explains that the food situation has improved since February-March 2014 when “both sides opened borders with Yalda and other neighborhoods. Before that rice was 15,000 lira [per kilo], now it is 500 lira.”
My trip to Yarmouk coincides with the arrival of an UNRWA food van at the camp. In the past year, the UN agency has relentlessly publicized the Palestinian starvation story, but left out key details.
For example, food scarcity hasn’t been the issue as much as accessibility and cost. There are vulnerable populations inside the camp who cannot fend for themselves, including children, the elderly, and single parents like the woman I met whose husband vanished at the start of the crisis and who has to tend to all the needs of her two young daughters alone.
In Yarmouk, food has always been smuggled in from neighboring rebel-held areas, but sellers have milked the opportunity to profit from the instability by charging staggering prices for food staples.
And then there are other problems. A PRCS aid worker inside Yarmouk tells me, “At the beginning of the aid distribution, rebels took the majority of boxes from people. But civilians inside formed committees against this and have minimized it.”
While I was interviewing aid recipients, two separate women, one with a child, complained to the UNRWA rep that rebels had confiscated their food boxes in the past week, and asked for a replacement. The UNRWA initially refused, citing an obligation to provide its limited boxes to all residents equally, but then relented, perhaps because of media on the scene.
The UNRWA told me it hands out approximately 400 boxes each day they are present in Yarmouk. Armed clashes prevent it from being able to access delivery points inside the camp on most days though. On the day of my visit, its food van did not have more than 100 boxes, and during the time I spent there, I did not see more than several dozen civilians line up for these boxes.
Yet UNRWA spokespeople have hit social media channels with a vengeance, loudly suggesting that 18,000 civilians inside Yarmouk are somehow dependent on their food aid. This is simply false. UNRWA has not had the financial or material capability to expand and extend its operations to meet Palestinian needs during this conflict. They continue to assist with schooling, provide food supplies and medical kits, but everywhere you turn in Yarmouk, Jeramana or Homs, there is also now an adhoc Palestinian committee doing the fieldwork and cobbling together assistance.
The main UNRWA rep in charge of food distribution inside Yarmouk offers up one interesting fact: “The Syrian government is doing its best to make this operation smooth. They do not put a cap on the number of [food] parcels to come in the camp.”
He specifically credits Kinda Chammat, Syria’s female minister of social affairs, for much of this.
…Even Palestine’s Ambassador to Syria Anwar Abdul-Hadi, who essentially reports to the Palestinian Authority, sounds just like the PFLP-GC these days.
“We asked them to leave Palestinians alone and the rebels said ‘this is Syrian land’ and they refused. We got a promise from the Syrian army never to go into the camps and the Syrian government kept its word. Till now we keep trying to ask rebels to leave, but have not succeeded because of Al-Nusra [Front], Jabhat al-Islamiyya and Hamas.”
Hamas, I ask? “Yes,” he says. “Hamas, Hamas, Hamas, Hamas.”
That may be self-serving. The dominant Fatah faction that controls the PA has been trying to undermine Hamas for years.
“The rebels,” Abdul-Hadi continues, “keep preventing (food aid) operations and they use hunger as a way to keep the Syrian government under pressure.” In the first few months of the year, “all [Palestinian] groups sent 12,000 food baskets and evacuated 4,000 Palestinians. And each few days, rebels make a fight to interrupt and stop this operation.”
Abdul-Hadi explains the politics behind these actions.
“Rebels killed some PLA officers to force Palestinians to help the Syrian revolution – to intimidate them. And they blamed the Syrian army. The target of this crisis is the Palestinian case. They think when they occupy Palestinian camps in Syria and divide them, they will forget Palestine,” he says.
“Before this crisis,” he admits, “Fatah was against the Syrian official state. But now there is more understanding between Syria, Iran and the Palestinian Authority.”
Anwar Raja, the PFLP-GC’s media director, has a lot to say about the reaction of other Palestinian factions when things first kicked off in Syria.
“We warned Palestinians in 2011 and 2012 about rebels coming to occupy Yarmouk, and increased these calls as rebels took control of surrounding areas in Tadamoun, Hajar al-Aswad, Yalda. We said the groups should arm themselves in defense of the camp, but they ignored us,” says Raja.
He explains why the other factions have now come around: “The view of developments is clear now – for Palestinians and Syrians both. People discovered it is a foreign program to destroy the state and divide society. Now we have knowledge and our brains are working again. Even simple, uneducated people have changed their opinion. At the beginning they could not read between the lines – it has been 18 months since everyone realized this. They saw there has been no advantage to this crisis – they lost everything.”…”
When I first visited Syria in April 2014, the international delegation I was with visited a school in the Zahara district of Damascus and another facility run by the UN, where Syrian and Palestinian displaced were being housed and fed. In my article, “In Syria, Life Goes On Despite Everything,” I noted:
“The children shine with bright smiles, the adults have tales of sorrow from their experiences and from being displaced by the snipers and other attacks by the armed gangs. They all say the same thing: “The rebels, those terrorists, came into Yarmouk, we had to leave.”
Their accommodations are sparse (there are so many displaced from various areas of Syria that accommodations become overcrowded), but the UN-provided accommodation is far worse, with rooms overcrowded with up to 25 or more people who sleep mattress to mattress for over one year. “We’re like sardines here,” says one displaced woman. “They keep piling more people upon us.”
I later visited the edge of Yarmouk, but the security quite reasonably there wouldn’t allow our smaller group to go further, to go into the line of terrorist sniper fire.