The siege of Yarmouk, which started in July 2013, changed the dynamics of the Syrian conflict. Not only has it discredited the Assad regime as a champion of the Palestinian struggle but also the Palestinians’ own leadership.
The Palestinian refugee community was determined to remain neutral throughout the Syrian conflict. After the ill-fated decision to take sides during the Lebanese Civil War and the first Gulf war, which each led to the persecution and expulsion of Palestinians, Yarmouk residents reasoned that, in order to survive, they would have to stay out of Syria’s political strife. This, however, proved difficult.
Yarmouk Camp, a district of the Damascus governorate a few miles from the capital’s center, began as an unofficial Palestinian refugee camp in 1957. Today, at just under one square mile, locals still refer to it as a camp, but it is essentially a suburb of Damascus with a thriving marketplace hosting nearly 1 million Palestinian and Iraqi refugees as well as Syrian residents. However, with the highest concentration of Palestinians in Syria (at 160,000 as of 2011), the neighborhood remains at the heart of Palestinian refugee identity and culture. Palestinians from every political faction, as well as artists, activists, actors and musicians, found a home here, because Bashar Assad, like his father, allowed the Palestinian cause limited means of expression as long as the movement served to build his cult of personality and never threatened his rule.
This, however, changed in 2012 when rebels began hiding in Yarmouk, previously considered neutral territory, and the army bombarded the neighborhood in retaliation. Palestinian political factions based in Damascus were forced to take sides. Hamas was put in an awkward position facing pressure from two sides: the Muslim Brotherhood and Palestinians sympathetic to the opposition on one side and their benefactors, Iran and the Alawite Syrian regime, on the other. In early 2013, Hamas turned away from their Syrian patrons toward Qatar and Egypt, declaring that Assad “took the wrong option.”
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority pleaded with Palestinians to stay out of the conflict, but President Mahmoud Abbas’ declarations of neutrality proved belated and futile, especially since groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command were already defending the Syrian government. The PFLP-GC even worked with the shabbiha (the regime’s notoriously brutal thugs) to besiege Yarmouk. Infuriated that the PFLP-GC jeopardized Palestinian neutrality and sided with a regime implicated in the deaths of Palestinians, Yarmouk residents burned down PFLP-GC headquarters in June 2011. In 2012, other Palestinian groups such as Liwa al-Asifa (Storm Brigade) fought alongside Syrian rebels in the camp. With the leadership so fractured, Yarmouk was vulnerable to attacks from all sides.
Since Yarmouk’s location was seen as the gate to seizing Damascus, the camp became ground zero for the larger conflict, with the military controlling the northern gate and the rebels at the southern end, with nearly 20,000 civilians trapped in between. Before long, extremist and criminal elements took over the Syrian opposition, and Palestinian support for their presence waned. Armed groups began looting homes and squatting in hospitals, taking what few supplies were left.
From August through December 2013, nothing got into Yarmouk and no one came out. People began eating weeds and boiling cacti for sustenance. An imam issued a fatwa allowing people to eat dogs and cats. Malnutrition, dehydration and treatable diseases killed over a hundred people. With few supplies left, the price of foodstuffs skyrocketed, with a kilo of rice costing $70 by December 2013. When the money ran out, family and friends wired more funds into Syria, which was then smuggled into the camp. When supplies ran out, the money was used to bribe guards to open the gates for a few minutes in order to deliver food and medicine.
In response to the siege, Yarmouk residents disseminated poignant images of the crisis via social media to hold their leaders and the international community accountable. Disturbing images of starving babies and children crying out for food and water in Yarmouk went viral on the Internet. Soon, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, in solidarity with their people in Syria, were posting images of children holding up stale loaves of pita bread with Arabic writing that read “Camp Yarmouk.”
Activists posted a video of dignified but beleaguered young men in the destroyed streets of Yarmouk standing around a pianist singing, “Oh displaced people, return ... Yarmouk, we are part of you and that will never change.”
From the Facebook groups “From Tunisia here is Yarmouk” and “Yarmouk Camp News” to fundraising concerts in London and poetry readings in Glasgow, tens of thousands of people around the world united to raise awareness about the siege. UNRWA initiated a Thunderclap campaign, which has reached over 11 million people. This campaign shamed Arab leaders and the international community into advocating for a humanitarian corridor.
In order to answer to his constituency and maintain his relevance, Abbas engaged in several rounds of negotiations with the Syrian regime, and a trivial amount of food and medical supplies arrived in December 2013. A little over a month later, Syrian rebel groups and government forces agreed to a tenuous truce, and Syrian rebel groups left the camp to be replaced by Palestinian factions allied to the Syrian government. The agreement allowed limited amounts of food and medicine to be distributed, but the U.N. still struggles to deliver aid every day.
The truce was short-lived: Days later, the Nusra Front and other extremist groups flooded back into the camp, allegedly executing 21 people in the open. The spotlight on Yarmouk has diminished, but the area is still the heart of the larger conflict, and fleeting cease-fires will not be effective in protecting this population.
In the absence of a unified Palestinian leadership, crises such as Yarmouk will continue to plague Palestinian refugees wherever they go. Assad’s support among Palestinians has decreased substantially. While Hamas made a seemingly virtuous decision to leave Syria, they effectively abandoned Yarmouk. Consequently, Hamas lost $300 million in aid from Iran. Since then, they also lost their Muslim Brotherhood partner in Egypt and with it the Gaza tunnel. Loss of Iranian aid and the tunnel levies weakened Hamas, which is now crawling back to Iran and walking back its opposition to Assad.
The image of Abbas, preoccupied with some of the most unpopular rounds of Israeli negotiations at one of the weakest moments for thee Palestinian leadership, has not improved either. With about 270,000 Palestinians displaced inside Syria and 80,000 outside, it is a dangerous time for Abbas to consider forgoing the right of return.
In Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait, Iraq, Libya and now Syria, Palestinians have been caught in one crisis after another, without a state or even the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, to protect them, lacking the necessary papers to escape these conflicts. The latest invasion of Yarmouk by extremist groups is simply another example. An unfair compromise over the Palestinian question in current negotiations would, at best, keep the status quo in which Palestinians will remain vulnerable in the next conflict and, at worst, incite a war. While Palestinian leadership is divided over Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and the Syrian conflict, Yarmouk residents effectively used the social media tools of the Arab Spring to demand humanitarian protection. These same forms of expression could fight an unsatisfactory solution to their larger plight, with or without the leadership to support them.
Natasha Hall is an analyst specializing in refugee and humanitarian crises. She conducted fieldwork with Palestinian and Iraqi refugees in Syria. This commentary, translated from the Arabic, first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (www.carnegieendowment.org/sada).