Assad forces fire shells and rockets into Palestinian refugee camp
News reports from Irish Times (1) and LA Times (3). Protest from Islamic Jihad Movement (2), BBC Profile of Yarmouk (4).
By Irish Times/Reuters
December 18, 2012
More than 1,000 Palestinian refugees living in Syria have crossed into Lebanon in the past 24 hours, a source at the Lebanese border said today, after Syrian rebels took control of a Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus.
Syria hosts half a million Palestinian refugees, descendants of those admitted after the creation of Israel in 1948, and has always cast itself as a champion of the Palestinian struggle, sponsoring several guerrilla factions.
The rebels, fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad, took full control of Yarmouk camp yesterday, rebel and Palestinian sources said, and government forces have been shelling the camp which is 3 km from the city centre.
The battle in Yarmouk is one of a series of conflicts on the southern fringes of Dr Assad’s capital, as rebels try to choke off the power of the 47-year-old leader after a 21-month uprising in which 40,000 people have been killed.
Abu Ali (75), said he left his home in Yarmouk on Tuesday morning with his wife and three children as artillery shells rained down on the neighbourhood of densely built apartment blocks.
“We walked out on foot without our belongings until we reached central Damascus. We got in a taxi and drove straight for the border,” said the elderly man at the Lebanese Masnaa border post.
Abu Ali says he will stay with relatives in Ain al-Hilweh, a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon’s southern city of Sidon. He estimated that 70 percent of Yarmouk’s residents had fled but added that many slept rough on the streets on Damascus.
More than half a million Syrian refugees have fled into neighbouring countries during the revolt, and the UN refugee agency say 3,000 are now seeking refuge abroad daily.
Lebanon – the closest country to Damascus – hosts 154,000 but aid agencies say a rebel push into the Syrian capital could force more than 10,000 to flee in hours.
Dr Assad’s government and the mainly Sunni Muslim Syrian rebels have both enlisted and armed Palestinians as the uprising has developed into a civil war.
The battle has pitted rebels, backed by some Palestinians, against Palestinian fighters of the pro-Assad Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC). Many PFLP-GC fighters defected to the rebel side and their leader Ahmed Jibril left the camp three days ago, rebel sources said.
Aid workers said on condition of anonymity that street clashes had reduced in intensity today and there was no sign of the PLFL-GC in Yarmouk but government bombardment continued and some fleeing residents were sitting in parks in the neighbouring districts of Midan and Zahra.
They said rebels were spread out across the camp, including in the abandoned PFLP-GC headquarters.
Um Mohammed (65), arrived at the border in a bus with several Palestinian families. “There is a huge amount of destruction. There are armed men in the street,” she said.
Others said that rebels, supported by the Palestinian fighters, were taking control of the area.
“The camps are 80 per cent controlled by the (rebel) Free Syrian Army and Palestinian fighters,” said Muna, a young woman who entered Lebanon on Tuesday afternoon. “All of the (pro-Assad) PFLP fighters have left the area.
It is not clear if the Syrian army will try to reenter Yarmouk in the coming days but Muna said she could see troops massing as she left the area.
“But the army is on the outskirts of Yarmouk. We passed several government checkpoints to get out.”
By Palestinian Information Centre
December 18, 2012
RAMALLAH – The Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine condemned “the criminal bombing” of the Yarmouk refugee camp in the Syrian capital Damascus, by the Syrian regime on Sunday.
The movement confirmed in a press statement released by Quds Press agency, in its Monday edition, its commitment to the security and safety of the Palestinian refugees in Syria.
The Islamic Jihad called on all Arabs and Muslims as well as the free world to assume their responsibilities by stopping the bloodshed in lines of the Palestinian refugees as well as the Syrian people, and putting an end to “the ordeal and the current tragedy” witnessed by Syria and its people.
A Syrian Mig fighter jet bombed a mosque and a school in the center of the Palestinian Yarmouk camp in Damascus on Sunday, killing at least 25 people and injuring 60 others.
Syria is the home of more than 500,000 Palestinian refugees, most of them living in Yarmouk.
By Patrick J. McDonnell and Nabih Bulos, Los Angeles Times
December 16, 2012
BEIRUT — Battles raged Sunday in a sprawling Palestinian refugee camp outside Damascus as Syrian government troops pressed an offensive against rebels on the outskirts of the capital.
Opposition activists reported at least eight killed when rockets from Syrian fighter jets struck near the Abdul Qader Husseini mosque in the Yarmouk camp, on the southern fringes of Damascus. Video said to be from the scene shows blood-streaked pavement and wounded people lying amid the rubble.
The reported airstrike on Yarmouk would mark the first time that the government had used warplanes to target the camp, a densely populated urban zone that is home to tens of thousands, both Palestinians and non-Palestinians.
The camp, like much of Syria’s half-million-strong Palestinian population, has experienced divided loyalties during the 21-month rebellion against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Some Palestinians have remained loyal to Assad’s administration, which has trumpeted itself as an unyielding defender of the Palestinian cause. Others have sided with the rebels and even enlisted in their ranks.
Yarmouk camp has previously seen periodic street fighting and mortar attacks, with some of the violence spilling over from adjacent, rebel-dominated districts.
A major pro-Assad Palestinian faction, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, confirmed in a statement that explosions had occurred near the Husseini mosque and the Fallouja School. The group said it could neither “confirm nor refute” reports of aerial bombardment.
The explosions came after more than 1,500 members of “armed gangs” — a government label for rebel fighters — breached the camp confines, the Popular Front said, adding that loyalist “popular councils” confronted the rebels.
According to the Popular Front statement, all of the attacking rebels were members of Al Nusra Front, an Islamist rebel group that the Obama administration blacklisted last week as an alleged affiliate of Al Qaeda.
The Syrian government has insisted it is under siege from foreign-backed “terrorists.” In press statements, Syrian authorities have in recent weeks increasingly blamed attacks on Al Nusra Front. The group has a reputation as a fierce and disciplined fighting force with considerable expertise in making car bombs and other improvised explosives. Al Nusra Front is one of scores of fighting units in the fragmented rebel force fighting to topple Assad.
Press TV, Iran’s English-language media service, reported Sunday that Ahmed Jibril, head of the pro-government Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, left the Syrian capital after the clashes in Yarmouk broke out. The Iranian news outlet said that Jibril left for the Mediterranean port city of Tartus, a bastion of support for Assad and a haven of relative tranquillity in strife-torn Syria.
The government has ramped up use of warplanes and helicopters against rebel forces across the country. During the last few weeks, Assad’s forces have been using air power and artillery to pummel rebels in the approaches to Damascus, seeking to thwart any opposition advance into the capital.
On Sunday, apart from the attacks in Yarmouk, the government said its forces had killed “scores of terrorists” in several rebel strongholds outside Damascus, including Zamalka and Duma in the northeast and Dariya to the southwest.
Special correspondent Bulos reported from Amman, Jordan.
Profile: Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp
By Feras Killani, BBC Arabic service
December 18, 2012
Yarmouk is considered by many the de facto capital of the Palestinian refugee diaspora.
When the Syrian authorities set out in 1957 to build an unofficial camp for those who fled or were displaced from their homes during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, they allocated land about 8km (5 miles) south of central Damascus.
Within a few years, the camp had become one of the biggest in the Middle East.
And as a result of the demographic and geographic expansion of the Syrian capital, it is today one of its most populous and important districts.
More than 150,000 registered refugees are resident in the densely populated area, which has its own mosques, schools and public buildings.
It is administered by the Syrian ministry of social affairs and labour, but the UN Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa) provides health and education services.
Literacy and numeracy rates among Palestinians in Yarmouk are among the highest not just in Syria, but across the Arab world. Many are professionals and living conditions are far better than those in other Palestinian refugee camps in Syria.
Much of Yarmouk’s success is owed to a law passed in 1956 that granted Palestinian refugees almost the same rights as Syrian nationals, particularly in the areas of employment, trade and military service. It also significantly increased their freedom of movement, something refugees resident in neighbouring countries did not enjoy.
And after the military coup of 1963 that propelled the Baath Party to power, Palestinians in Yarmouk launched organisations to “resist” the Israeli occupation of their homeland. Thousands of youths joined newly established groups like Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
Hundreds of these youths were subsequently killed in battles with Israeli forces, many during the invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
Palestinian fighters were able to reach the front line under the protection of the Syrian army, whose troops were deployed in Lebanon between 1976 and 2005.
In 1983, the residents of Yarmouk experienced difficulties when the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad declared Yasser Arafat, the leader of Fatah and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), persona non grata and barred him from the country. Arafat accused Assad at the time of encouraging a split in the Fatah.
In addition to banishing the PLO’s leadership, the Syrian government came to see Yarmouk as an opposition stronghold and also arrested thousands of Arafat supporters.
Afterwards, residents began to concentrate on commercial, rather than political and military activities. This resulted in Yarmouk becoming a centre of commerce in Damascus, and today tens of thousands of Syrians live and work there.
With the PLO’s relations with the Syrian government strained, the Palestinian Islamist movements Hamas and Islamic Jihad sought to fill the political power vacuum in Yarmouk.
Leaders from both groups moved in and recruited scores of youths to their causes. Hamas’s political leader Khaled Meshaal lived in Yarmouk until he refused to endorse President Bashar al-Assad’s handling of the uprising against his rule.
Once the Hamas Political Bureau had relocated to Egypt and Qatar in early 2012, they declared their wholehearted support of the Syrian opposition.
Drawn into conflict
The departure of Hamas left the residents of Yarmouk without any political representation or protection. An offshoot of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – the General Command, which supports President Assad – soon deployed fighters around the camp, saying they wanted to prevent infiltration by the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA).
This did not, however, prevent the camp from being drawn into the conflict.
Dozens of Palestinian refugees have been killed in Yarmouk in the past 21 months, according to Palestinian sources, who have also documented the deaths of more than 700 others across Syria in the same period.
On 16 December, government warplanes bombed Yarmouk for the first time, after the FSA sought to seize control of the camp from the PFLP-GC. Some were reportedly killed when a rocket struck a mosque where people had taken shelter.
The government meanwhile blamed a jihadist group, the al-Nusra Front.
The Palestinians have found themselves on yet another journey towards the unknown, having had to leave their houses behind as their ancestors did six decades ago.
While the rebels seek to establish control of the camp, tanks and artillery machines belonging to the government are scrambling to reclaim it.
Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp
Yarmouk camp is home to the largest Palestinian refugee community in Syria, with more than 148,500 residents registered with the UN.
It lies 8km (5 miles) from the centre of Damascus and resembles an urban quarter, occupying 2.1 sq km (0.8 sq miles) and containing mosques, schools and other public buildings
Since its establishment in 1957, refugees have built cement block homes and the camp is now densely populated. Conditions are better than at other Palestinian refugee camps in Syria
Many of the refugees in Yarmouk are professional, working as doctors, engineers and civil servants. Others are employed as casual labourers and street vendors
Source: UN Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa)