No one has been safe during Syria’s ongoing civil war, which has resulted in the deaths of more than 240,000 people and left more than 4 million refugees outside the country’s borders.
Yet, the more than half a million Palestinian refugees in Syria have been “particularly vulnerable because they were already refugees,” according to Wesam Sabaaneh, youth director of the Jafra Foundation for Relief and Youth Development.
In August 2012, Palestinians – many of whom tried to remain neutral as the uprising further turned into armed conflict – found themselves targeted for the first time when Syrian government forces shelled the Daraa refugee camp. At least 20 people were killed.
Since then, nearly 3,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria have died during fighting between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and armed opposition groups, according to the U.K.-based Action Group for Palestinians of Syria. Another 943 are currently detained by the Syrian government forces and an estimated 277 have been abducted.
The plight of Palestinians in Syria was thrust into global media coverage when the Syrian government installed an airtight siege on the Damascus-area Yarmouk refugee camp in December 2012. Worse still, the Islamic State launched an offensive on the camp in April 2015 and captured more than 90 percent of Yarmouk.
Though most ISIS fighters were reported to have withdrawn from Yarmouk shortly after, Sabaaneh says that they remain active in the camp and work closely with Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian wing of al-Qaeda.
Although the U.N. recently said that Yarmouk is no longer besieged, its agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA, has been unable to access the camp since March 28, spokesperson Chris Gunness told Syria Deeply.
Syria Deeply met with Sabaaneh to speak about Jafra’s work and what he has witnessed on the ground in Yarmouk and other Palestinian refugee camps in Syria.
Syria Deeply: Can you explain the broader situation for Palestinian refugees in Syrian since the civil war began back in March 2011?
Wesam Sabaaneh: The Palestinian people in Syria in general saw what happened in Lebanon during the civil war. We were very worried the same thing will to Palestinians in Syria and most people wanted to stay on the safe side. Most people decided not to take sides and instead hoped to just help civilians as much as possible.
The Palestinian camps were a safe haven for internally displaced persons and for the wounded, especially in Yarmouk camp.
Now, this wasn’t appreciated by either side – the Assad regime or the opposition. The opposition wanted us to participate more in protests and militias and side with them. At the same time, the regime used the same logic – they accused us of allowing “terrorists” to enter the camps and of not fighting with the Syrian regime, which, they say, was always with us and supported our rights. This confusion from the two sides also found its voice within the Palestinian people.
Some people began to participate in demonstrations and military actions. On the regime side, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command and Fatah al-Intifada began to recruit for Assad.
In the beginning, the idea was just to protect the camps. That changed. The main concern we have is that Palestinian camps are more vulnerable than many places in Syria because the Palestinians there are already refugees. There was no way for most Palestinians to escape Syria – Lebanon was closed to us, Jordan was closed and Turkey was closed. All of these countries. We had no option but to stay in Syria.
UNRWA was supposed to be helping Palestinians in Syria, but it wasn’t able to perform as a protection agency or a relief agency in the most needed areas. Since the beginning, wherever there was a bit of violence or a change of control, UNRWA would withdraw from the camp. In Deraa and Yarmouk, for instance, there is no UNRWA presence anymore.
Since December 2012, there hasn’t been UNRWA in the Yarmouk’s interior. They were able to distribute aid at checkpoints and distribution centers on the outskirts of the camp. They didn’t enter. They evacuated schools, health centers and everything else.
Syria Deeply: How did people organize to fill this gap and the growing humanitarian crisis that ensued?
Wesam Sabaaneh: Local Palestinian NGOs and relief groups had to expand their roles to fill these gaps. They had issues with funding and supplies, but the main problem is security. Volunteers and activists with these groups were targeted [by both sides] because of their relief work.
UNRWA stopped school, healthcare and everything. The local NGOs have to organize ways to educate children in this environment.
The gap we speak of wasn’t just because of UNRWA, but also from the Palestine Liberation Organization, which hasn’t done anything very helpful for Palestinians in Syria. There was no real will to help us. Our own parties became divided. PFLP-GC and Fatah al-Intifada were with the regime, while Hamas was considered a part of the Syrian opposition. Fatah was not allowed to work in Syria before, but now they’re using the civil war to restore ties with Damascus instead of helping people who are suffering.
Syria Deeply: There is a lot of focus on Yarmouk, but how have other Palestinian camps in Syria been affected by the fighting?
Wesam Sabaaneh: Daraa camp today is 60 percent destroyed and nobody speaks about it. Al-Husseiniya camp and Sbeineh camp have no people left – they’ve all been evacuated. They were targeted by the regime and the Free Syrian Army and now civilians have been stopped from returning. It’s controlled by the regime, which doesn’t allow civilians to return at all.
Yarmouk is the biggest camp in Syria. It’s considered the capital of Palestinian refugees in the diaspora. What happened in Yarmouk is an example, a symbol of what happened. Now, there are around 5,000-8,000 civilians left in Yarmouk. If we speak about Yarmouk’s story, we understand the story of all Palestinians in Syria.
The Syrian opposition took control of part of the camp on December 18, 2012. That same day, many civilians were evacuated. Yarmouk’s siege really began on that day. That’s when a Syrian army checkpoint began controlling who can enter and who cannot and what materials can go into the camp.
Syria Deeply: The U.N. recently stated that Yarmouk is no longer under siege. Has reality changed on the ground at all?
Wesam Sabaaneh: Yarmouk has been totally closed since July 2013 till today. Food, water, medicine, school materials, books – nothing was allowed. Most of the people who died from the siege were old people and children. We’ve documented around 172 people who died from malnutrition and lack of health services due to the siege.
Regarding those who were able to escape Syria, there are 40,000 Palestinians from Yarmouk and other Syria camps in Lebanon, we estimate. They live in tough conditions and have to live in Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps, like Ein al-Hilweh and Shatilla.
Syria Deeply: How have opposition groups tried to recruit Palestinians in the camps? And how have Palestinian political leaders and influential figures been treated in the camp?
Wesam Sabaaneh: Most of the fighters in Nusra and ISIS in southern Damascus are Syrian or Palestinian, from areas like Yarmouk and the Hajar al-Aswad neighborhood and other places in south Damascus. This area was closed and there was little possibility for foreign fighters to enter. They starved the people in order to recruit them. People who are scared and starving will accept anything. The more extremism from the [Syrian government’s] side, the more extremism happened from the opposition’s side. It’s not only Palestinians – it’s everyone in Syria – but Nusra and ISIS have tried to exploit suffering for recruitment purposes.
Now the camp is still under Nusra and ISIS control. A year and a half ago, Nusra and ISIS began to target activists, political and military leaders, relief volunteers and others for assassination. Anybody who wanted to protect Palestinians as Palestinians was targeted. They have killed around 30 people so far. Hamas people were targeted very harshly all over Syria – mainly by the regime, but also by Nusra and other groups since April 2015. The regime targeted Hamas because they broke ties with Damascus [at the beginning of the uprising].
Some of their fighters pulled out after the [invasion of Yarmouk in April 2015], but ISIS is still inside the camp. And for us, ISIS and Nusra are the same in Yarmouk.
Syria Deeply: With no end in sight to this catastrophe in Yarmouk and the other Palestinian refugee camps in Syria, what should the world be doing?
Wesam Sabaaneh: There is no security and no one to protect us. In war, you need protection to be guaranteed, especially when you are working in war zones. You never know when five armed people, for instance, can enter your office and take everything. And whenever armed groups know you need protection, they try to control you.
The main issue is that Palestinians are still not protected by anyone. The Palestinian parties took off, U.N. and UNRWA have failed their protection mandates. Nusra and ISIS – the Islamic group in general – don’t accept that we are Palestinians or that Syrians are Syrian. You’re just a Muslim or not to them. In Yarmouk, there was no main [Palestinian] power to fight them.
There are three sides that can protect us. The first is the U.N., but we don’t see any hope from the U.N. Politically, the U.N. cannot do this. It never has. The Syrian regime and opposition could protect us, but they will never do it because neither can do it for themselves. The third party is the Palestinians. Honestly, we also don’t have hope in the already existing Palestinian parties – not the PLO, not Fatah. They’ve shown that they will not protect us. We hope Palestinians in Syria will find a new way to protect themselves.
Photo courtesy of the Associated Press.