Damascus’ Yarmouk camp facing ongoing crisis
“This is the battle of Palestine par excellence. We have to fight, sometimes side by side with the Syrian army. We should, at the very least, form a Palestinian force that fights gunmen in the Yarmouk refugee camp and kicks them out, as in the rest of the camps,” said Anwar Raja, spokesman of the political bureau of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC).
In an interview with As-Safir, Raja warned against “betting on a political settlement in the Yarmouk refugee camp, and against the failure in forming a Palestinian military force amid the control of gunmen over the camp. These steps could pave the way for a massive attack against some of the neighborhoods of Damascus aimed at taking the Syrian army by surprise, as happened in the battle of Kassab. It could also lead to a popular belief that a Palestinian front was opened in Syria.”
Raja said he is convinced that what is being planned in Yarmouk is a step toward an attack on the Syrian capital. He compared the militant’s peaceful manner to the Israeli style of operation, which is characterized by killing time. He said, “Gunmen have erected barricades and dug entrenchments in the camp at a time when peaceful initiatives — that some responded to — are designed to take the Zahara and Medan regions [of Damascus] by surprise in a heated military action from Yarmouk.” He warned that “the danger is imminent in Yarmouk,” and called on the allies to be prepared for the battle of Yarmouk.
Raja considers the factions’ failure in assuming effective military roles, and the absence of a unified, clear and serious Palestinian stance toward the Syrian crisis, as behind the current situation in the camp. He said, “Our people in the Yarmouk camp are paying the price of an ambivalent and faded Palestinian stance,” and pointed out that “the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which is betting on the [peace] negotiations, relies on Saudi support and the United States’ word. Thus, the organization believes any positive stance toward the regime in Syria may obstruct the negotiations.”
Raja noted that since the start of the events in Syria, the PFLP-GC believes “there is an attempt to break the natural and historical ties between Palestinians and Syrians, and to distract Syria from its Arab resistance role by stirring internal developments. As the events in Yarmouk have evolved, there were attempts to drive a wedge between camp residents in order to embroil the Palestinians in the crisis.”
He continued, “The events in al-Khalisa were a prelude to the crisis that will reach the Palestinian camp. As a result, several meetings were held with other Palestinian factions to take proactive measures to oppose any potential access of gunmen to the camp, after it was revealed that the security situation in the camp is vulnerable. Yet, no effective step was agreed upon.” Raja quoted an official from a Palestinian faction, who said at a December 2012 meeting prior to the entry of gunmen, “There is no way the opposition will enter the camp.”
Raja added that the situation is difficult, as Palestinian forces stand idly. “We were not covered. We were by ourselves in the field, and it was hard to counter the invasion of the tatars of the modern era. Had the [PLO] taken a stance against anyone who entered the [Yarmouk] camp, branding him a murderer and terrorist, the camp would not have been infiltrated. What is taking place has a political dimension aimed at the marginalization of the cause of refugees, the displacement of Palestinians and the elimination of the culture of return. The purpose of these events is to insinuate that the Syrian state is responsible for the situation in the camp,” he said.
Raja spoke about the formation of Palestinian groups substituting the Free Syrian Army in the camp, namely: Al-Ohda al-Omriya Brigade, Zahrat al-Mayadeen Brigade, Ahrar Filastin, the Unified Palestine, the Liberation of Palestine-the Free Command, the Col. Ahmed Yassine Brigade and Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis, which is allegedly close to Hamas.
“Following the introduction of aid [into the camp], it was proven that political initiatives are a waste of time,” he said, noting that the five Palestinian official visits were not fruitful.
Raja confirmed that recent events do not mark an emergence of militants but a step toward ending armed groups, pointing out that in the context of distributing aid to the camp, “250 Palestinian militants came out of the camp to normalize their situations.”
Secretary-General of Fatah al-Intifada Abu Hazim agrees with Raja’s positions. The positions of the PFLP-GC and Fatah al-Intifada are similar. They were the only two factions that called for for the formation of a military force to face the militants, while other factions called for disassociating the camp. Abu Hazim believes that in the framework of the conspiracy against Syria, it was inevitable to hit the camp and involve the Palestinians in the conflict. The extremists started harassing the Palestinians after the attack on the Daraa camp and the attack on the PFLP-GC’s headquarters in the Khalisa building.
“The number of armed Palestinians does not exceed 500,” said Abu Hazim. He told As-Safir that his movement is ready to fight for the people and even for Syria. “We do not make any distinction between Syria and Palestine. A strike against Syria is a strike against the Palestinian cause and this is why they attacked our positions in the Ghouta and assaulted some of the younger members of Fatah al-Intifada.”
Abu Hazim added, “It is too late to disassociate the camp because disassociation is a proactive step. Today, in light of the deployment of militants in the camp, the conditions of a military solution are not met.” According to him, some factions are calling for the disassociation of the Yarmouk camp under the pretext that weapons are unnecessary and destroy the camp. He confirmed that the initiatives were unable to lead to a solution. However, the only gain generated by these initiatives is the provision of some foodstuffs. “The civilians in the camp are more like hostages held by militants,” he said.
He explained that the Syrian steadfastness forced the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah to change its positions and prompted the Hamas movement — which had lost so much — to re-interpret the situation. Abu Hazim said certain individuals in Hamas aim to shift the group’s positions on the Syrian crisis to a more centrist line.
On a related note, a Palestinian source in the camp stressed that Yarmouk is correlated to its geographical surroundings, including the neighborhoods of Yalda and Hajar al-Aswad, which are controlled by the militants. “The PFLP-GC and Fatah al-Intifada took it upon themselves to protect the camp. The turning point was the betrayal by one of the leaders in Fatah al-Intifada, who had received between 5 and 7 million Syrian pounds [$34,000 to $47,000] from Jabhat al-Nusra. As a result, the latter executed him.”
The source told As-Safir, “At first, the militants were infiltrating the camp during their bombardment of the camp and the skirmishes that followed. They broke into apartments whose owners were displaced after the events broke out and spread further into the camp.” The source pointed out that the militants depended, since their entry into the camp, on existing materials (ammunition and food) from al-Khalisa storage facilities, which will last for years.
He confirmed that the militants did not get out of the camp. But after the death of the commander of the Lions of Tawheed, Abu Noor Dreib, this group — which included thousands of insurgents and was the strongest faction — was destabilized. “Before the qualitative operation of the Bab al-Dreib’s killings, clashes took place in a bid to seize the Regie headquarters. This operation — in which 5,000 militants participated — stretched from Hajar al-Aswad to Beit Sahem,” the source explained.
On the possibility of reaching a solution, a compromise or even a reconciliation, the source stated, “How can we reconcile with murderers and robbers digging tunnels, killing and starving people? Yet, in case a solution is sought, who is the person that these people will resort to for support? Is it Ahmad Jarba, the president of the National Coalition of the Syrian opposition?”
The source concluded, “No law, legislation or Sharia accepts insurgents controlling civilian life.”
One of the camp’s residents, who left it a few weeks ago, said, “People are fed up. Imagine that you are very thirsty and as you grab a glass of water, it breaks into pieces.”