Palestinian "volunteer forces" stand guard while NGOs tend to Yarmouk camp residents receiving food aid, medical assistance and evacuation.
Palestinians didn't jump into the fray in Syria. They were dragged into it - violently and reluctantly. Here is the story of how and why Palestinians and their 14 refugee camps became strategic targets in the Battle for Syria.
A small UNRWA van delivers boxes of staple foods to Yarmouk camp residents who wait at a pick-up point. Bread donated by the Syrian government lies atop the boxes.
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.
By contrast, driving through rebel-occupied Tadamoun, Yalda and Hajar al-Aswad on my way in and out of the camp, one could only gape at the burned buildings and vehicles, shuttered shops, rubble in the streets and makeshift checkpoints dotting these new conflict zones.
Return to Yarmouk
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.
When I ask them where they’re from, in rapid-fire, one after the other, they tell me,“Safad, Lubya, Haifa, Tiberias, Jerusalem, Acca,” though, of course, they’re too young to ever have been to any of these places. That’s where their parents or grandparents hail from. That’s where they intend to return one day.
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.
Last bastion of the PLA
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 food market inside Jeramana, one of 14 official and unofficial Palestinian refugee camps inside Syria.
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.
Many Palestinians I interviewed told the story of the driver of the PLA van – who was not a soldier himself. Ahmad Ezz was a young man from the Nairab camp in Aleppo. The rebels spared him – temporarily – then strapped him into a vehicle rigged with massive explosives, and ordered him to drive into a Syrian army checkpoint.
According to multiple Arabic news reports, at the very last minute, Ahmad veered sharply away from the checkpoint. The rebels detonated the explosives and Ahmad died, but by changing course he spared the Syrian soldiers.
In what perhaps speaks to Palestinian sentiment about the Syrian conflict more than many of the ‘contested’ incidents, the residents of Nairab camp turned out en masse for Ahmad’s funeral. Says Mohammad, a young Palestinian whose family lives outside Yarmouk in one of the neighboring suburbs – and who first told me the story of Ahmad – “We saw him as a hero for saving the [Syrian] soldiers.”
This isn’t such an odd sentiment. After all, the majority of male Palestinian refugees in Syria have undergone military training by the PLA, under the auspices of the Syrian armed forces.
The international media has tended to focus on events in Yarmouk as the ‘one’ Palestinian story inside Syria, but this is far from accurate. There are about 14 different refugee camps in the country, each with its own experiences in this Syrian conflict.
I visit Jeramana camp next. It is a small camp on the outskirts of Damascus that blends into the larger Jeramana neighborhood, both now bustling with refugees from other camps and from conflict-hit parts of Syria.
Jeramana is peaceful, though mortars, rockets and rebels from nearby BeitSaham, Jobar and EinTerma break the calm every so often. Because militants intermittently try to storm the camp entrances, Jeramana residents also have a ‘volunteer force’ like Yarmouk’s – this one manned by armed men from three Palestinian factions: the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC – led by Ahmad Jibril), Fatah Intifada and as-Sa’iqa. One of the fighters that met me at the camp entrance has a broken arm from a recent skirmish with rebels.
This is the camp made famous by Angelina Jolie in October 2009, when she came to visit Palestinian refugees displaced by conflict in Iraq. At Jeramana’s entrance lies a monument dedicated to the camp’s martyrs killed by mortars from neighboring areas. Syrian flags hold sway alongside Palestinian ones here.
Further into the camp, I spot several dozen children in festive mode, sporting nationalist clothing and hoisting Palestinian and Syrian flags. One carries a large poster of Syrian President BasharAssad. The kids are about to perform in a ceremony for Yom al-Ard (Land Day) to commemorate the day in 1976 when Israel confiscated thousands of dunams of Palestinian land. They do an impromptu dress rehearsal for me before going on stage – here is the video.
I follow them around the corner to their destination and am startled at what lies ahead. A large, colorful tent has been erected to house a crowd attending the Yom al-Ard activities – but flanking the podium inside are massive posters of Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, his predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Assad.
The event, which used to be held in Yarmouk camp, has been organized by the Palestinian-Iranian Friendship Association, and has been around for at least 10 years. The event’s focus is not political, however.Its mission is to honor teachers volunteering in the camps with gifts and awards.
I am curious about the Syrian flags though – they are everywhere. A camp resident tells me, “You rarely saw this before the crisis.” He thinks there are two reasons for the flags. “To show solidarity – we now believe that Palestine is over if Syria falls – and maybe also to show loyalty, because there’s doubt been sown.”
In 2012, all the Palestinian political factions – with the exception of Hamas – signed onto two separate letters/declarations that essentially pledged neutrality in the Syrian conflict. So this visible support for the Syrian government is unexpected.
Syrian support goes on
The Syrian state continues to support Palestinian refugees in various ways: inside Jeramana, the Syrians have established a supply store that provides food basics – lentils, jam, beans, tomato paste, yoghurt etc – at substantial discounts for camp residents and displaced persons. An elderly woman sits at her makeshift stall elsewhere in the camp, distributing state-subsidized bread for literally pennies. (In Yarmouk, I had also observed government-donated bread and jam sandwiches handed out to refugees awaiting UNRWA food aid boxes.)
Inside the camp’s main marketplace, an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables are on display in the narrow street. Even though the camp’s population has swelled to four to five times its pre-conflict numbers, residents have adapted to the new realities in Jeramana. They, at least, still have their homes.
Unlike Yarmouk, there is no visible presence of UNRWA – the UN agency dedicated to Palestinian refugees – and I am told they do not have an office here. Palestinians from other camps – and Syrians too – have flooded Jeramana in this crisis, so local “committees” step in to provide food, often daily. A committee truck passes by at lunchtime – it carries industrial-sized metal pots of home-made rice and stew to hand out to the new residents.
Jeramana is one of at least 14 Palestinian refugee camps and areas in Syria, both official and unofficial. In every interview with Palestinian officials, aid workers and regular civilians, I asked for status updates on each of the camps. The responses varied sufficiently to suggest that events on the ground keep shifting, especially in rebel-occupied or surrounded camps where clashes take place between militants and Palestinian forces – or with the Syrian army on the outskirts.