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Is Yarmouk Headed for the Same Fate as Nahr al Bared?

Some Palestinians here in Damascus, from the Palestinian writers union with whom this observer has been meeting,  including independent researcher  Hamad Said Al-Mawed, are saying so.

Admittedly there are some similarities between the two camps’ fate.  Both are among the ‘better’ of the 57 Palestinian refugee camps in the hosting countries, of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank; and both, one in Lebanon, the other in Syria, were penetrated by salafist-jihadists from other countries.  Jihadists from nine countries made incursions into Nahr al Bared in early 2007, near Tripoli, Lebanon.  As many as 29 country’s salafists entered Yarmouk in Damascus, some discretely, over the past several months and a massive attack starting on December 16.  Both groups of outsiders were given weapons and largely funded by Gulf countries, primarily US ally Saudi Arabia, and both projects were acquiesced in by the American and Israeli governments who saw useful “creative chaos” to borrow a phrase from Madeline Albright.  Both camps were quickly surrounded by government forces awaiting orders to expel or kill the infiltrators. Both camps were subject to aerial bombing.   Today, many inhabitants of both camps harbor suspicions that hegemonic interests seek to destroy and empty their camp in order to force the removal of the maximum number of refugees from the Levant, part of a project to undermine the Palestinians’ inalienable Right of Return to their homes in Palestine.

Over the past ten weeks of intermittent shelling of the camp, more than 40 residents have been killed and each of the Yarmouks 28 schools, six hospitals and 15 mosques have been damaged.  The Palestine Red Crescent Society has lost ten ambulances from various rockets and RPG’s.

The morning of December 21 saw general calm in Yarmouk, following intense clashes, widespread destruction in some areas and two bombs dropped over the past week.  Several hundred Palestinians, from among the more than 100,000 who fled this week risked their lives yesterday by crossing through Syrian army lines  during last night to return to what was left of their homes, rather than remain on the cold, wet, windy streets, parking lots and parks. More are returning today.

Irrespective of what one might think of the role of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-GC (PFLP-GC) in igniting the fighting at Yarmouk, and the role of its leader, Ahmed Jebril, one of the founders of the  Palestinian “ rejectionist front” so vilified by Philip Habib in the early 1980’s,  both have been working  around the clock since last Sundays invasion to save the camp and restore calm and security.

This observer, while meeting with General Command politburo member, Anwar Raja, felt guilty taking the fellows time because his phones rang nearly nonstop as he tried to solve camp residents problems as best he could, shouting orders to some of the gunmen in his office and others on the phone, cursing some of his men who took what he claims is Gulf money bribes to go home or to switch sides—all the while conferring with Jebril, Syrian officials, other Palestinian groups, and even some  Al Nusra and other salafist groups trying to do a deal to save the camp.

Despite efforts of the General Command, Jabril and the organization is persona non grata in Yarmouk and its unclear if the PFLP-GC will be able to return anytime soon.  Last Wednesday’s meeting at the Palestine Embassy blacklisted Jebril and his group.  Feelings inside Yarmouk are very strong against him, yet interviewing some officials of “al Islamiya” and others, it is not clear to this observer what his crimes were.  It is true that Jebril hired a few hundred Palestinians in Yarmouk at $150 dollars per week and formed “popular security committees” ostensibly to keep order and “neutrality” in the camp, and it is also true that a number of them are accused of using and dealing drugs and run a bit rough shod if challenged, but it is not proved that the GC committed murders in the camp or engaged in burglaries and other serious criminal acts. In any case the “popular committees” that Jebril had set up have by now collapsed and dispersed.

Palestinian refugees returning to the camp have lost some of their fear and are angry to find some armed “outsiders” still inside.  Remaining al Nusra elements—and there do not appear to be many, nor do they appear to be any longer threatening the residents—are scowled at as they smoke nargileh water pipes in the alleys and try to joke with kids and  returning camp residents. A few of the al Qaeda types even wanted their picture taken with a visiting American, apparently never having actually met one, but who they assumed would be hostile or look like Satan. During cups of tea, one joked that this observer should not worry because they will not kidnap him for ransom.  I assured them that if they did my government would not pay one American penny for my release, despite the fact that I consider myself a patriot in the mold of Stephen Decatur: “My country right or wrong but when right to be kept right and when wrong to be put right.”  They laughed when I added: “come to think of it my government might just pay you fellows a ransom to keep me!”

Reports of an openly sectarian conflict inside Yarmouk do not appear accurate. What one consistently hears from residents is that they want to stay out of the conflict and not take sides. They are acutely aware that various elements want to drag them into the Syrian civil war.  There is a wide-spread perception that the past several months of violence against Yarmouk are messages not to support either the rebels or the government or Yarmouk could end up like Nahr al Bared camp in North Lebanon.


About the Author

Franklin Lamb

Franklin Lamb
A volunteer with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.com), Franklin Lamb is in Syria doing research. He is author of the book, Syrian’s Endangered Heritage, scheduled for publication later this year.