Syria: War Moves Closer to Khan al-Sheeh Palestinian Camp

free syrian army fighters monitor pro-government forces positions through a hole in Izaa district in the Syria's northern city of Aleppo on 9 February 2013. (Photo: Aamir Qureshi)

By: Anas Zarzar

Published Sunday, February 10, 2013

Battles in Syria are spreading from Damascus’ Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp to the outskirts of Khan al-Sheeh, the country’s second largest camp. This refuge for more than 40,000 Palestinian and Syrian refugees now reeks of death as it is the target of kidnappings and assassinations.

Damascus – Several months ago, the Syrian war reached the doorstep of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp. In the camp, most negotiations and reconciliation efforts have failed, including those initiated by Palestinian resistance factions.

Many families displaced from Yarmouk have relocated to Khan al-Sheeh, the second largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, located about 40 kilometers southwest of Damascus. Recently, skirmishes between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Islamic militant groups have taken place in the environs of Khan al-Sheeh. War has once again caught up to unarmed civilians.

Inside Khan al-Sheeh

The layout of Khan al-Sheeh is not much different from other Palestinian refugee camps. It consists of hastily-built homes stacked shoulder-to-shoulder, separated only by narrow alleyways. The walls are covered with posters of Palestinian resistance factions, with each faction enjoying varying degrees of popularity.

The majority of the camp’s residents belong to Palestinian-Arab tribes that were pushed from northern Palestine in 1948. Perhaps this explains the positive role played by the chiefs of the camp’s tribes since the beginning of the Syrian conflict. The camp leaders sought to remain neutral and refrained from interfering in the uprising.

Abu Hani, 54 years old, owns a small shop in the camp’s market. “The role of tribal elders went further than that of the different resistance factions in the camp. Those who crossed the line were cut off from their clans,” he said.

Nevertheless, many incidents have since taken place in Khan al-Sheeh. On 26 January 2013, the mutilated corpse of Sheikh Sultan Hayel, an imam at a mosque in nearby Drousha, was found at a farm not far from the camp.

Rival parties exchanged accusations for the killing of Sheikh Hayel. Some blamed the popular committees for his kidnapping and subsequent murder, while others held the FSA responsible for assassinating the cleric, who was suspected to have been an informant for the security services.

The killing coincided with a large scale attack carried out by al-Nusra Front against a key military position in the Sasa region near Khan al-Sheeh. All checkpoints operated by the Syrian Security services and the army in the camp were subsequently dismantled. This paved the way for mass kidnappings that targeted microbus passengers.

Not Another Yarmouk

Ayham is a young Palestinian working in relief operations at Khan al-Sheeh.

“The stench of death and decomposed body parts has spread in the camp, specifically in the western region and the many scattered farms located there,” he said. “Today, no one risks leaving home for fear of kidnapping and murder. We do not want the tragedy of Yarmouk to be repeated here.”

When asked about the identity of those behind the kidnappings and murders, Ayham preferred to remain silent. He then said, “Only God knows the truth about what is going on. It is a frantic competition in murder. This is happening not only in our camp, but throughout all of Syria.”

The residents of the camp are not standing by idly. Massive demonstrations were held that called for an end to the presence of arms in the camp. Palestinian resistance factions issued a joint statement that stressed “the need to spare the camp any negative repercussions that may lead to casualties.”

Some aspects of the statement provoked a backlash among camp residents when, for example, the factions called for “helping people remain in the camp.” The majority of the factions’ leaders do not even reside in Khan al-Sheeh.

Abu Adham, 62 years old, said, “Are these leaders aware of the sheer magnitude of fear and terror in which we live inside our homes? We are tired of their speeches and statements that only seek to score political points.” Abu Adham’s home, located in a part of Khan al-Sheeh used as a FSA base, came under attack from rockets.

“There are more than 300 fighters from the FSA stationed here at present, along with fighters from al-Nusra,” he said. “No one listens to our demands. All we want is to keep the camp neutral in the ongoing conflict.”

The FSA did not pay much attention to the demonstrations that came out to demand that the rebel group not enter Khan al-Sheeh. Meanwhile, the regular Syrian army will not hesitate to bomb areas of the camp that have been turned into FSA barracks.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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