Palestinians in Syria desperately need Yarmouk truce

Remaining Palestinians ‘living in deeply abject conditions in Yarmouk’, UNRWA spokesman tells Al Jazeera.

A man walks on debris at a site hit by what activists said were barrel bombs thrown by forces loyal to Syria''s President Bashar Al-Assad, in the Palestinian Yarmouk refugee camp
A man points to what activists said were barrel bombs dropped by Syrian army in Yarmouk earlier this year [File: Moayad Zaghmout/Reuters]

A deal brokered by the United Nations hopes to end the suffering of thousands of residents stuck between a government-imposed siege and armed opposition groups in a Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus. 

The deal, which has not been confirmed yet, will permit the exit of fighters from armed opposition groups from Yarmouk camp and the nearby neighbourhoods of al-Hajar al-Aswad and al-Qadam, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Thursday. 

 ‘Rebels to leave’ Damascus suburbs under deal

The Syrian Observatory also said that the deal will allow hundreds of Palestinian families to be moved from the camp to calmer areas in Damascus.

Unconfirmed reports by activists said busses started arriving and transporting armed groups from Yarmouk and nearby areas on Friday afternoon.  

Home to Palestinian refugees and Syrians, Yarmouk has been the site of intense fighting between the Syrian government and its allies, on the one hand, and armed opposition groups, including the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of the Levant and Iraq (ISIL) group. 

Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA), said that there have been “persistent reports” of negotiations towards a truce or ceasefire in Yarmouk over the last three months. 

“These reports are credible and UNRWA is taking them seriously, although they have not been officially or formally confirmed, and details have been vague,” Gunness told Al Jazeera. 

Like Syrians across the country, Palestinians in refugee camps, including Yarmouk, have been caught in the crossfire as fighting rages on between government forces and armed opposition groups. 

READ MORE: Yarmouk camp victim of water wars in Syria

UNRWA has been unable to access Yarmouk since late March, shortly before ISIL fighters invaded on April 1 and took control of more than 90 percent of the camp.

Most ISIL fighters pulled out of the camp’s interior within days, but the group controls many surrounding areas. Al-Nusra Front still maintains a heavy presence inside the camp. 

In December 2012, the Syrian army killed dozens of civilians when it bombed and besieged Yarmouk, putting up checkpoints and heavily restricting the entry of food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies. 

Although the UN removed Yarmouk from its list of besieged communities in July, residents and humanitarian groups say the situation has only worsened. 

In 2014, reports emerged of hundreds dying from starvation and others suffering mass malnutrition. Many residents were reduced to eating stray animals and grass in order to survive as Syrian soldiers blocked the delivery food and medicine. 

Free Syrian Army fighters prepare tea as they rest inside a building near the frontline against what they said were ISIL fighters in the Yarmouk camp REUTERS/[File: Ward Al-Keswani/Reuters]
Free Syrian Army fighters prepare tea as they rest inside a building near the frontline against what they said were ISIL fighters in the Yarmouk camp REUTERS/[File: Ward Al-Keswani/Reuters]

‘Trying to survive’

“UNRWA demands that any arrangements being negotiated in and around Yarmouk must include guarantees for a durable cessation of hostilities, for the protection of civilians, and for safe, uninterrupted humanitarian access for UNRWA and other humanitarian actors,” Gunness said. 

Reports indicate that the health situation inside the camp has severely declined in recent months. In August and September, a typhoid outbreak spread quickly throughout the camp and impacted at least 90 people. 

“There are several thousands of civilians living in deeply abject conditions in Yarmouk,” Gunness continued, adding that access is “urgently needed to enable UNRWA to deliver food, clean water, winter supplies, healthcare, and other humanitarian assistance and services”. 

Once home to nearly 200,000 Palestinian refugees and Syrians, the local population has plummeted to an estimated 5,000 – 8,000 civilians, according to the Yarmouk-based Jafra Foundation humanitarian group. 

“Those who stayed are the poorest people, the ones who didn’t have the means to leave, such as children or families without parents and other vulnerable groups,” Wesam Sabaaneh, a coordinator at the Jafra Foundation who visits Yarmouk regularly, told Al Jazeera. 

“Today the [fighters] will leave the camp, but we are waiting to find out who will control it after,” he said, explaining that rumours have spread that Aknaf Bait al-Maqdis, a Hamas-affiliated armed group, may attempt to take control of Yarmouk. 

Aknaf Bait al-Maqdis fought ISIL and Nusra in April, but most of their ranks were pushed out of the camp at the time. Between April and August, Nusra and ISIL assassinated more than 30 local Palestinian leaders, mostly from Hamas. 

“There are no more Hamas leaders left in the camp at the moment,” Sabaaneh said. “They are dead or had to leave.” 

Due to border closures for registered Palestinian refugees, most of Yarmouk’s displaced population was uprooted to elsewhere within Syria’s borders. “They cannot go to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, so they are just trying to survive,” Sabaaneh added. 

Yarmouk residents inspect a site hit by what activists said were barrel bombs thrown by Assad forces on May 26, 2015. [File: Moayad Zaghmout/Reuters]
Yarmouk residents inspect a site hit by what activists said were barrel bombs thrown by Assad forces on May 26, 2015. [File: Moayad Zaghmout/Reuters]

‘Most vulnerable’ 

Palestinians in Syria are the descendants of those dispossessed during Israel’s 1948 establishment, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were made into refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere. 

“Most of the problems that happen in the Palestinians camps are the same ones Syrians face, but the biggest issue is that Palestinians have no option of leaving,” he said. 

At least 3,084 Palestinians have been killed since the Syrian uprising started in March 2011, according to the UK-based Action Group for Palestinians of Syria. Another 1,022 are locked up in Syrian prisons and at least 282 cannot be accounted for. 

Since the initially unarmed uprising against President Bashar al-Assad started nearly five years ago, it has turned into a full-blown civil war that has claimed the lives of more than 250,000 people, according to UN estimates. 

Yarmouk is only one of several Palestinian refugee camps hit hard by the fighting. An estimated 70 percent of the Daraa camp has been damaged by the fighting, while the al-Sbeineh camp has been completely evacuated by Syrian government forces, the Action Group reported

An estimated 500,000 Palestinians in Syria were registered by the UN as refugees before the start of the uprising, but that number has since dropped. 

Within Syria, Jafra estimates that more than 100,000 Palestinians still live in areas with little or no access to humanitarian aid. 

 Palestinian officials demand safe passage from Yarmouk

“The Palestinian people in Syria are the most vulnerable people in the country because they already refugees without representation,” Sabaaneh said. “Who has spoke up for Palestinians in Syria? Who has helped us?” 

READ MORE: Lessons from Yarmouk

According to Sabaaneh, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) is “not doing anything to help” Palestinians in Syria, while Palestinian political parties “have been more concerned with their own interests”. 

“We have never seen any hope from the UN,” he added. 

He estimates that Yarmouk will need “at least one year” before it is inhabitable. “There is a lot of destruction in the camp,” he said. 

Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_

Source: Al Jazeera