Palestinian refugees in Syria are facing difficult and tragic conditions, as a result of the uprising there and the conflict between the regime and the opposition. Of the 160 thousand Palestinians who lived in the Yarmouk Refugee Camp (RC), 130 thousand have had to flee. Those who remained were subjected to a brutal blockade and a famine that killed dozens.
Although most Palestinian factions agreed on maintaining the camp’s neutrality and refraining from intervention in internal Syrian affairs, various developments and attempts by many of the warring parties to take advantage of the camp’s strategic location, or to draw the Palestinians into the conflict, eventually turned Yarmouk RC into one of the arenas of the Syrian war.
There are several possible scenarios: implement a truce and render the camp neutral; the battle for the camp could continue; or one of the warring parties could prevail and end up controlling the camp. However, it will still be important to spare no effort to lift the siege on Yarmouk RC and all other camps, allow the displaced to return, and keep the camps neutral from all forms of armed conflict. In addition, all forms of support should be extended to Palestinian refugees in Syria.
Needless to say, the Palestinian community in Syria came to exist in the aftermath of the Nakbah (catastrophe) of 1948. According to statistics by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), the number of Palestinian refugees registered with the agency until 31/3/2013 was 537 thousand. As there were other categories of Palestinians present, for example those who came to Syria from Jordan, Lebanon, and the Gaza Strip in different periods and for different reasons after 1948, who are not registered with UNRWA in Syria, the real number of Palestinians is estimated to be 600 thousand. This puts the Palestinian population at 2.8% of the total population of Syria.
Almost a quarter of these Palestinians live in 13 camps (including three that the UNRWA does not designate as official refugee camps, such as Yarmouk RC). The largest bloc of Palestinians (around 80%) is concentrated in the Damascus area, known as the Damascus Countryside. Yarmouk RC is considered the largest Palestinian concentration in the Damascus area. According to data from UNRWA, more than 160 thousand people lived in Yarmouk RC until December 2012.
Before the uprising (which turned into a revolution later) in early 2011, the Palestinian community in Syria was one of the most stable and integrated Palestinian refugee communities in their host countries. The Palestinian refugees in Syria had a special legal status (based on Law No. 260 dated 1956) giving them a wide range of economic, social, cultural, and civil rights, close to full citizenship rights, while retaining their Palestinian nationality. In general, the Syrian state maintained this status for the Palestinians throughout the past decades, guaranteeing their participation in the economic, social and cultural life on par with the Syrian citizens.
The Post-Crisis Period:
After the current crisis erupted in Syria, the Palestinians, like the Syrians, were exposed to its devastating repercussions on the fabric of their community, especially in the camps, and their social wellbeing and various facets of their daily lives. This has forced them either to become displaced within Syria, in search of relative safety, or to flee outside Syria, for the same reason.
Thus, the second and third generations after the Nakbah were exposed to internal and external displacement from the country where they were born and raised, and than which they knew no other country. Those of them who were forced to flee outside Syria were subjected to various forms of suffering and discrimination in the neighboring countries where they sought temporary asylum. Some of them risked their lives and their children’s lives in death boats and along international crossings in search for safety. Some of them made it, but many died trying.
Since the start of the crisis until late 2012, before the situation deteriorated in Yarmouk RC, the Palestinians in Syria maintained a kind of neutrality. They had in mind the lesson of the first Gulf war, when the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) sided with Iraq, causing the mass deportation of Palestinians from Kuwait.
Under this state of relative neutrality, Palestinian camps in the north, south, and around the capital Damascus (particularly Yarmouk RC and Khan Eshieh RC) turned into safe havens for Syrian refugees fleeing the fighting. This truly embodied Syrian-Palestinian brotherhood at the popular level.
The Palestinian refugees shared their food with their Syrian brethren. The population of some refugee camps such as Khan Eshieh soon doubled because of the influx of Syrian refuges. The refugee camps also turned into supply lines for both of the warring parties, the regime and the opposition. In the beginning, this situation was agreeable to all Palestinian factions and the two warring parties, despite the fact that the regime forces would sometimes raid the camps and besiege them when opposition fighters took shelter there – whether in search of safety, to treat their wounded, or for other logistical requirements. This happened many times, especially in the Daraa RC. Before it was completely thrown into the conflict, Yarmouk RC was a model of that state of “positive neutrality.”
However, the complexity and militarization of the Syrian crisis, as a result of direct intervention by regional, Arab, and international parties in the conflict, and the overlapping and conflicting interests of those parties, led to a state of polarization in the Palestinian positions, which was interpreted as bias for one side or another in the conflict. The Palestinian division, in addition to increased pressure by the regime and the opposition on the Palestinians through threats and enticements, with the goal of pushing them to abandon their neutrality, aggravated that polarization and made it less likely for the Palestinian factions to maintain neutrality.
In reality, the situation in Yarmouk RC since the beginning of the crisis until now summarizes how Palestinian RCs turned from being demilitarized, neutral areas hosting Syrian refugees, into hot spots that each side in the conflict wants to dominate and implicate in the fighting.
The Yarmouk RC, which has sprawled to become one of the capital’s boroughs, is considered the largest Palestinian concentration in Syria. The majority of its population is Palestinians, and the camp is seen as a mirror of Palestinian attitudes towards the Syrian crisis.
With the Syrian opposition’s attempts to tighten its siege around the capital, in order to storm it and defeat the regime, the military importance of Yarmouk RC was further underscored for both sides. This importance stems from its proximity to the hot spots of the fighting (al-Hajar al-Aswad, Yalda, Babila, Tadamon, al-Qadam), and from being the southern entrance to the capital for the opposition forces in the context of the so-called “Battle of Damascus.” This is what happened at the end of 2012, when opposition forces advanced from the southern flank in the direction of Yarmouk RC, on the grounds that there were pro-regime militants inside the camp, meaning the fighters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine- General Command (PFLP-GC).
The battle for the camp resulted in the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Islamist opposition factions (al-Nusra Front and others) taking control of the camp, while regime forces, in coordination with the PFLP-GC, took control of the northern entrance of the camp, which leads to al-Zahirah neighborhood, an area known as Madkhal al-Batikha.
As a result of this military situation, the refugee camp came under heavy bombardment in mid-December 2012, in which the regime used the air force for the first time, targeting the Palestine Mosque and Al-Bassel Hospital. This was followed by a wave of displacement from the camp as a result of which about 130-120 thousand residents left. Those who stayed (20-30 thousand) were subjected to a tight siege that killed more than 120 people, because of starvation and the lack of medical care.
Since that time, many Palestinian factions and the PLO made efforts in coordination with UNRWA to end the siege on the camp, and bring in humanitarian aid to its residents, calling on militants to withdraw from the camp and restore its neutrality. As a result, a solution was found but it was difficult to implement at the time. Currently, a revised version of this solution is being implemented, and its most important provisions include: That the non-Palestinian militants’ withdraw from the camp; that Palestinian militants deploy along its perimeter; that supplies are brought in to the refugee camp and those in critical conditions are evacuated; and that the displaced residents return to the camp. But in light of the security conditions hanging over the Yarmouk RC, it is not easy to predict whether this agreement will hold.
It is difficult to predict the outcome of the revolution in Syria, and whether the talks in Geneva—if they resume—would succeed in reaching a political solution to the crisis. Both parties to the crisis and the international powers backing them differ over interpreting the proposals and the priorities over their implementation. In the foreseeable future, it does not appear that there will be a solution to the crisis on the basis of sharing power between the warring parties. The possible scenarios for what will happen in Yarmouk RC can be summed up as follows:
First Scenario: De-escalation and Neutralizing the Yarmouk RC
It seems that there is an apparent accord over this scenario among the various parties. There is a desire to keep the Palestinians and their camps away from the ongoing conflict, and for them not to be used as weapons in the hands of any party. This scenario would allow the displaced to return to the camp, aid to flow in, reconstruction efforts to begin, and normal life to resume. However, the crisis of confidence between the conflicting parties, and the urgent need to use all their means to control and put pressure on opponents, and the failure to decide the conflict in favor of any party, all make the scenario for de-escalation a fragile possibility that can be breached and that can collapse at any moment.
Second Scenario: The Battle for the Camp Continues
This scenario assumes that geopolitical or military-based interests are prioritized by the conflicting parties over humanitarian considerations and the special Palestinian circumstances of the camp. This means that the camp would be dealt with as part of the political geography of the conflict, and as one of the means of pressure in the latter. Thus, the camp could be subjected to further siege, destruction, and suffering.
This scenario also assumes that the regime may not be in a hurry to resolve the battle in its favor, even if it has the means to do so, especially if the cost in lives would be too high, so that it may not be accused of targeting Palestinians and their camps. The scenario also assumes that the Syrian opposition is still far from achieving any substantial gains in Damascus. Furthermore, the Western-international desire seems to be in favor of prolonging the conflict, attrition, and destruction of Syrian infrastructure, as well as destroying the social fabric in Syria.
Third Scenario: The Battle is Settled in Favor of One of the Two Parties
This scenario assumes that one of the two parties would take full control of the camp, its entrances, and its exits, meaning the end of the siege and the return of some of the displaced, with normal life returning in one degree or another to the camp. However, conditions will not return fully to normal until a full solution is found in Syria. This means that even if the battle is settled in favor of one of the parties in the camp, the camp will not be safe from aerial or artillery bombardment, or military-security operations, as long as the environment around it and beyond remains unstable.
No matter which scenario is the most likely on the ground, efforts should focus on protecting what is left of the Palestinian presence in Syria, and on keeping it neutral in the conflict. Efforts should also focus on trying to find accords with the two parties, in order to protect the camps’ residents, and supply it with all necessities of life, in preparation for the return of those who were displaced and stranded inside and outside Syria.
In this context, the Palestinian leaderships and factions must keep in mind the importance of safeguarding the social fabric of the Palestinian refugee camps, to preserve the Palestinian identity and to use the camps as bases for the struggle to return to Palestine for they have produced Palestinian freedom fighters generation after generation. On the other hand, the Palestinian national factions must think hard and seriously to maintain the gains and privileges of the Palestinians in Syria throughout the past decades, embodied in the special legal status the Palestinians have enjoyed.
1. Lifting the siege on Yarmouk RC and all camps immediately, allowing the freedom of movement, the return of the displaced, and the return of normal life.
2. Developing a unified Palestinian position stressing the neutrality of the Palestinian RCs in the armed conflict in Syria, reinforcing this position on the ground in a tangible and practical manner, and convincing the various sides to the conflict of this.
3. Appealing to donor countries to fulfill their commitments in support of UNRWA, and offer the agency exceptional support to shore up its role in offering relief to Palestinian refugees inside Syria, as well as those who were driven out to neighboring countries. In the same context, appealing to international NGOs to provide more support to secure the basic needs of these refugees.
4. Getting the Syrian government’s General Authority for Palestinian Arab Refugees to exercise its humanitarian role and duty, in coordination with UNRWA in providing relief services.
*Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Mr. Jaber Suleiman for authoring the original draft on which this strategic assessment was based.