Human rights and humanitarian groups are warning of a new tragedy in Yarmouk camp on the outskirts of Damascus as thousands of civilians are trapped in their homes without food and water.
Ahmad Majdalani, the labor minister in the occupied West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, announced that the major Palestinian factions had agreed to cooperate with the Syrian government to use military force to expel “the terrorist group ISIS out of the Yarmouk refugee camp.”
Majdalani did not name the Palestinian groups who agreed to the military cooperation.
The BBC reported that Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis, the Palestinian opposition militia which has been fighting ISIS, “was not involved in the agreement.”
The Palestine Liberation Organization later contradicted Majdalani, stating that it rejected a joint operation with the Syrian military.
ISIS, also known as the Islamic State or ISIL, raided the camp last week, inflicting another chapter of misery on the estimated 18,000 civilians who remain trapped there.
Yarmouk was once home to approximately 150,000 Palestinian refugees and Syrian nationals, but, as the Associated Press stated yesterday, “Most of its residents fled in late 2012 as rebels moved in amid fierce government attacks, with many heading to overcrowded Palestinian camps in neighboring Lebanon. The government blockaded Yarmouk, preventing the entry of basic supplies.”
Dozens of residents died of starvation in the camp as food and water became a weapon of war, as it would in other places in Syria.
Amnesty International reported yesterday that “At least 18 civilians, including a 12-year-old girl and a humanitarian worker” have been killed in Yarmouk since the ISIS takeover last week.
In addition to sniper fire from ISIS, residents are also “at risk as Syrian government forces have intensified the shelling and aerial bombardment of the camp … including by dropping barrel bombs.”
“One civilian activist in Yarmouk told Amnesty International that two more residents died of starvation this week,” the London-based human rights group added.
UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees, has been unable to deliver food aid to Yarmouk since the end of last month. Last year UNRWA was only able to distribute the “equivalent to only 400 calories per resident per day, drastically short of the World Food Programme recommended daily amount of 2,100 calories for civilians in crisis zones.”
A coalition of civil society organizations warned today that “The situation in the camp continues to rapidly deteriorate and is expected to turn into a large scale humanitarian tragedy if safe humanitarian corridors are not immediately secured.”
“As basic medical supplies run out in health facilities in the camp, such as the Palestine Hospital and al-Basil Hospital, fighting parties refuse to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to provide humanitarian aid to civilians in the camp and to evacuate the scores of injured civilians,” the groups stated.
“The Syrian government should therefore allow the ICRC unfettered access to the camp in order to deliver food and medical supplies and evacuate wounded civilians,” the statement adds.
The call for access and evacuation was also made by UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness during an interview broadcast today by the CBC.
“We need to have a pause [in hostilities] so that we can get humanitarian access to civilians … and so those civilians that want to leave can be evacuated,” Gunness said.
Gunness told the CBC that ISIS controls “probably more than half” the camp, “where 95 percent of the civilian population are. So it’s really a case of mortal danger because you’ve got Syrian officials increasingly talking about attacking the camp and you’ve got people who are effectively trapped inside because of the siege that’s going on.”
“This is a UN-protected population in the capital city of a UN member state in the 21st century,” Gunness said.
“It’s inconceivable in my mind that the so-called civilized world can stand by while women and children the most vulnerable in this civil war can be subjected to the barbarities that the people of Yarmouk are presently being subjected to,” he added.
The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated today that “In the horror that is Syria, the Yarmouk refugee camp is the deepest circle of hell,” adding that “A refugee camp is beginning to resemble a death camp.”
Member states in the UN General Assembly however have cut funds to the world body’s agency mandated with delivering services to Palestinian refugees.
Gunness told the CBC today that “The reality is we are cutting back services to people in situations like Yarmouk because governments like the Canadian government are cutting back their funds.”
“Nothing short of the credibility of the international system itself is at stake,” he added.
But that system has long failed the abandoned Palestinian refugees, who remain stateless and without protection more than six decades after their forced expulsion from their homeland.
This post was updated on 11 April to state that the Palestine Liberation Organization rejected coordinating a joint operation with the Syrian military.