Fears over the safety of the 18,000 civilians trapped in Yarmouk, south of the Syrian capital of Damascus, have grown following reports that ISIS has taken control of large areas of the Palestinian refugee camp.
ISIS, also known as the Islamic State or ISIL, notorious for its brutal execution of hostages in the areas it occupies in Iraq and Syria, infiltrated Yarmouk camp on 1 April.
Fierce battles are reported to have ensued since then, as Aknaf Beit al-Madqis, an anti-government militia in the camp aligned with the Palestinian faction Hamas, have pushed back against ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria.
Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis stated today that the group is “fulfilling to defend the capital of the Palestinian diaspora and the blood of our people” and denied reports that its fighters had surrendered.
“We shall remain steadfast until Yarmouk camp is cleansed of the darkness and tyranny, if God allows.”
Jabhat al-Nusra has reportedly prevented other armed groups from entering Yarmouk to reinforce Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis.
The Syrian air force has also reportedly bombed the camp.
The Reuters news agency reported today:
Tayseer Abu Baker, head of the Palestinian Liberation Front in Syria, part of the Palestine Liberation Organization, told Reuters over the phone that Islamic State had killed 21 people including fighters and civilians since Friday.
“Some families are trying to exit the camp but with Islamic State snipers on rooftops of high buildings that is very difficult,” he said. He added Islamic State had kidnapped at least 74 people from the camp and that civilians were trying to flee.
As Reuters notes, “security and reporting restrictions” make it impossible to independently verify reports in Syria.
Coordination with Jabhat al-Nusra
In a statement emailed to The Electronic Intifada today, the Jafra Foundation for Relief and Youth Development, which works to improve conditions in Palestinian refugee camps in Syria, said that the ISIS attack on Yarmouk from the south on 1 April was launched in coordination with Jabhat al-Nusra, which forced its entry to the camp in December 2012.
Aknaf Beit al-Madqis, the largest Palestinian militia in the camp, immediately resisted the ISIS attempts to enter the camp, along with volunteer fighters from Yarmouk, according to Jafra, and was initially able to take back areas captured by ISIS.
But ISIS fighters seized the Palestine Hospital, kidnapping five injured volunteers, whose whereabouts “are still unknown,” Jafra stated.
The following day, ISIS entered the camp from the east, and, in coordination with Jabhat al-Nusra, was able to control more than half the camp as Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis consolidated its positions in Yarmouk.
“At this time ISIS began to enter the offices of all local organizations in Yarmouk,” Jafra stated. ISIS broke into Jafra’s offices, briefly detaining three volunteers present at the time. “ISIS destroyed the office and all paperwork inside,” the group added.
Violent battles continued on 3 April. Jafra reported that two young Palestinian fighters were beheaded by ISIS and two young women were kidnapped, their whereabouts unknown.
“There are now no operational hospitals or medical facilities to serve the civilian population inside the besieged camp,” according to Jafra, which added that one if its volunteers, 21-year-old Majed al-Omari, was shot and killed by ISIS sniper fire outside his home on 3 April.
Targeting of activists
Jamal Khalife, a 27-year-old media activist, was also reported killed by shelling.
Khalife is co-director of a short film highlighting life under siege in Yarmouk that was uploaded to YouTube yesterday:
Civil activist Mohommad Rimawi was also reported killed in a mortar strike near the camp’s Palestine Hospital “which led to the injury of a number of paramedics and health care personnel.”
Jafra Foundation added that it has suspended its work in Yarmouk.
“Nusra has shared lists of civilian activists working in media, relief and other sectors with ISIS. There is information that Nusra has kidnapped volunteers from other organizations inside the camp,” the group stated.
According to the Dublin-based Front Line Defenders, which advocates for the protection of human rights defenders, “Assassination of human rights defenders and humanitarian volunteers by militant groups has been common in the camp.”
The group adds, “On 30 March 2015, Mr. Yehia Hourani, a volunteer for the Red Crescent, a Syrian humanitarian organization, was killed on his way to his place of work. On 23 February 2015, Mr. Firas Al Naji, a member of the PLHR [Palestinian League for Human Rights], and close friend of Abdullah Al Khateeb, was shot dead in his residence in the camp.”
Threats have been made on the life of Abdullah Al Khateeb, a founding member of PLHR, “a network established in 2012 to document and promote the human rights of Palestinian refugees,” Front Line stated yesterday.
“Since 2011, Al Khateeb has been documenting human rights abuses committed by different parties within the Syrian conflict, while also volunteering to provide humanitarian assistance in the Yarmouk refugee camp,” the group added.
Statements attributed to Al Khateeb, translated and published on the blog of Salim Salamah, a Palestinian from Yarmouk currently in Sweden, describe a “catastrophic” medical situation and “intensive shelling and aerial bombing.”
Al Khateeb states that most of the activists wanted by ISIS have been evacuated, “with continuous attempts to evacuate the rest.”
He adds that negotiations with ISIS, which he says he was party to, ended in failure.
“The mission is extremely difficult as Yarmouk’s borders are full of mines, besides being covered by snipers,” he says.
Al Khateeb’s group, PLHR, has meanwhile condemned the Palestine Liberation Organization’s “very passive approach towards the catastrophe” in Yarmouk and its failure to put pressure on the Syrian government to lift its siege on the camp.
PLHR calls for international intervention “to push for a lift of the siege by the regime, to stop the progress of ISIS and to support the inhabitants of Yarmouk” by securing both safe passages via government-controlled checkpoints and guarantees of no political arrests.
A pseudonymous source in Yarmouk, described as a 30-year-old journalist and activist, told the web publication Middle East Eye this week that “Most of the fighters of IS [Islamic State] are not foreigners; they are sons of southern Damascus. IS did not come from nowhere. It was born out of the siege. Last year when food and water were running out and electricity was dwindling, support for IS began to grow.”
“Since last year IS has been moving steadily north-east toward central Damascus,” he added.
Describing the situation in Yarmouk this week, he said, “The situation is disastrous. … We don’t know what the aim of the rebels is anymore … is it to control the camp, defeat the regime? Get rid of another rebel group?”
Twenty months of siege
Yarmouk was once home to an estimated 150,000 Palestinian residents and thousands of Syrian nationals.
Dozens died from starvation there after government forces and pro-government militias “began to prevent all access to Yarmouk” in July 2013, according to Amnesty International.
Residents have not had reliable electricity since then, as the main supply was cut, according to UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees.
Fighting and siege have prevented the distribution of badly needed humanitarian aid to the civilians who remain trapped in Yarmouk, which include an estimated 3,500 children.
Camp residents do not have access to running water and adequate medical care. Yarmouk’s main hospital has been damaged by shelling and lacks surgical equipment and medical staff.
Residents have been forced to reduce their food intake to one meal per day and suffer chronic malnutrition, dehydration and severe vitamin and protein deficiencies as a result.
“All twelve Palestine refugee camps and all 560,000 registered Palestine refugees in the country have been affected” by the four-year-long conflict in Syria, according to UNRWA.
A recent report details the profound toll that war has taken on the general population of Syria, where life expectancy has plummeted by twenty years.
Most Palestinians in Syria are refugees from the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine and their descendants. Israel refuses to respect the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their land and property.