Fears over the safety of the 18,000 civilians trapped in Yarmouk, south of the Syrian capital of Damascus, have grown following reports that the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group has taken control of large areas of the Palestinian refugee camp.
The IS, notorious for its brutal execution of hostages in the areas it occupies in Iraq and Syria, infiltrated Yarmouk camp on April 1.
Fierce battles are reported to have ensued since then, as Aknaf Beit al-Madqis, an anti-Syrian government militia in the camp aligned with the Palestinian faction Hamas, have pushed back against IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria.
An April 4 Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis statement said the group is “defend[ing] 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,” the statement said.
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.
Reuters reported on April 4: “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.”
In a statement emailed to Electronic Intifada on April 4, the Jafra Foundation for Relief and Youth Development, which works in Palestinian refugee camps in Syria, said the IS attack on Yarmouk from the south on April 1 was launched in coordination with Jabhat al-Nusra, which forced its entry to the camp in December 2012.
Resisting IS take-over
Aknaf Beit al-Madqis, the largest Palestinian militia in the camp, immediately resisted the IS attempts to enter the camp, along with volunteer fighters from Yarmouk, and was initially able to take back areas captured by the IS.
But IS fighters seized the Palestine Hospital, kidnapping five injured volunteers, whose whereabouts “are still unknown”, the statement said.
On April 2, the IS entered the camp from the east and, in coordination with Jabhat al-Nusra, was able to control more than half the camp.
“At this time ISIS began to enter the offices of all local organisations in Yarmouk,” Jafra stated. The ISS broke into Jafra’s offices, briefly detaining three volunteers present. “ISIS destroyed the office and all paperwork inside.”
Violent battles continued on April 3. The Jafra Foundation reported that two young Palestinian fighters were beheaded by IS and two young women were kidnapped.
“There are now no operational hospitals or medical facilities to serve the civilian population inside the besieged camp,” the Jafra Foundation said, adding that one if its volunteers, 21-year-old Majed al-Omari, was shot and killed by IS sniper fire outside his home on April 3.
Targeting of activists
Jamal Khalife, a 27-year-old media activist, was reported as killed by shelling.
Khalife is co-director of a short film highlighting life under siege in Yarmouk that was uploaded to YouTube on April 3.
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.”
The 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 organisations inside the camp,” the group stated.
According to an April 3 statement by 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.”
Threats have been made on the life of Abdullah Al Khateeb, a founding member of Palestinian League for Human Rights (PLHR), “a network established in 2012 to document and promote the human rights of Palestinian refugees,” the Front Line Defenders statement said.
Al Khateeb was quoted on the blog of Salim Salamah (a Palestinian from Yarmouk currently in Sweden) describing a “catastrophic” medical situation and “intensive shelling and aerial bombing”.
Al Khateeb said that most of the activists wanted by the IS have been evacuated, “with continuous attempts to evacuate the rest”.
He added that negotiations with the IS, 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 said.
The PLHR has condemned the Palestine Liberation Organisation’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.
The 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.
An anonymous journalist and activist in Yarmouk told Middle East Eye on April 1: “Most of the fighters of IS 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.
“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 have died from starvation since 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, according to UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees.
Fighting and the siege have prevented the distribution of badly needed humanitarian aid to the civilians who remain trapped in Yarmouk, which include an estimated 3500 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.
Most Palestinians in Syria are refugees from the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine or their descendants. Israel refuses to respect the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their land and property.
[Abridged from Electronic Intifada.]