Yarmouk Refugee Camp Divided Over Syrian Crisis

Syrians feed pigeons at Marjeh Square in the capital Damascus on 7 November 2012. (Photo: AFP - Joseph Eid)

By: Anas Zarzar

Published Friday, November 9, 2012

The situation in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Syria has deteriorated rapidly amid fears of violence between the camp’s pro and anti-government factions. Some are fighting alongside the Syrian army, while others have enlisted with the Free Syrian Army.

Damascus – For the third time in less than four months, the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp located just south of the Syrian capital has become the scene of bloody clashes between fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Syrian army units.

The violence has been exacerbated by the shelling of the camp as well as its southern outskirts – an area made up of neighborhoods like al-Hajar al-Aswad and al-Uruba that’s now known as the “line of fire.”

These are areas that the state-controlled Syrian media has repeatedly claimed were “cleansed of terrorist gangs and FSA militants,” but the continued fighting indicates the battle is not over.

The return of armed clashes and shelling to the camp in recent days has left 45 civilians dead and scores more wounded, while the camp’s schools were closed and residents started to flee once again to safer ground. Yet this time, new factions have decided to join the FSA, announcing the creation of two brigades christened ‘Palestine’ and ‘al-Asifa,’ or the Storm.

These brigades are made up of Palestinians opposed to the regime and the policies of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), a faction close to, and supported by, the Syrian regime.

The PFLP-GC has formed a number of popular committees in an attempt to impose order in the camp and to prevent the FSA from entering. The armed opposition has characterized these measures as “a brazen challenge and an undesirable intervention in the Syrian crisis.”

A leader in the PFLP, who preferred not to be named, said that involving Palestinian youth in the games of the FSA and enlisting them in militias affiliated with the rebel group is “a reckless decision that will have a negative toll on the Palestinian cause.”

He also stressed that all parties to the conflict in Syria were attempting to exploit the Palestinian refugees in order to “win over Arab and international support for their respective positions.”

“All the warring sides in Syria today want to recruit the Palestinian side to serve their own agendas,” he said. “The Syrian regime has opened its weapons stores to the PFLP-GC to participate in its battles, while the FSA has succeeded in taking advantage of the enthusiasm of some young Palestinians to draw them into its efforts as well.”

The PFLP leader cautioned, “Either way, the biggest loser will be the Palestinian cause.” He affirmed that the Palestinians are keen on safeguarding a united Syria, and that there is no solution to the crisis except dialogue.

The rapid escalation within the camp’s premises has divided public opinion in Yarmouk. Those sympathetic to the Syrian uprising like to blame the Syrian regime and the PFLP-GC for the violence in the camp. By contrast, pro-government loyalists – particularly the residents of the “line of fire” – see things differently.

Concerning reports in the media about Syrian regime warplanes bombing a camp neighborhood, 67-year-old Yarmouk resident Abu Majd gave a different account.

“We heard planes flying over the camp,” he said. “There was panic everywhere, and rumors that the warplanes were bombing the camp, but in reality, I saw the planes from the roof of my house bombing the groves between the camp and nearby Babila.”

This resident of the Yarmouk camp lost three family members during successive incidents of violence in the camp over the past two months, including a ten-year-old boy who was shot by a sniper.

“Palestinian refugee camps have seen many wars and fierce battles throughout its history, but we have never seen incidents as bloody as the ones the camp is witnessing today,” said Abu Majd.

“Whenever I have tried to leave my home, I have encountered militants in the streets. I do not know whether they belong to the FSA or the popular committees that answer to Ahmad Jibril [of the PFLP-GC], or even the Syrian army or security forces,” he added.

For its part, the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was quick to issue a statement to clarify the incidents in Yarmouk after several political entities and individuals, including Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, sought to take advantage of the violence to score political points.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry’s statement contained a strong pledge by the Syrian regime to “stand against any attempt to drag the Palestinians into what is happening.” The statement also said, “What Syria is currently undergoing is the result of its stance on the Palestinian cause.”

A statement issued by the popular committees in the camp was also read on Syrian state television. The statement claimed that the incidents were “the result of attacks by terrorist gangs on the camp,” and affirmed the popular committees’ support “for the government in Syria in its fight.”

This statement, however, caused more resentment among many of the camp’s residents, who reject the practices of the Syrian regime in support of the PFLP-GC. After all, they say, this group bears a large part of the responsibility for the recent events in the camp, especially since members of the PFLP-GC took up arms and fought alongside the Syrian army in some of its battles.

In the words of one 27-year-old camp resident who goes by Abu Fahed, “When we demonstrated to protest the deaths of 14 recruits of the Palestinian Liberation Army near the Neirab camp, the Syrian security forces responded by firing live ammunition at us, killing nine youths.”

“Today, the Syrian regime has opened its weapons stores to the fighters controlled by Ahmad Jibril,” he added. “So what Palestinian neutrality are they talking about exactly?”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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