North Africa, West Asia

Yarmouk: a late obituary for the capital of the Palestinian diaspora

The story of the Palestinian refugee camp besieged, destroyed, and emptied it of its people before being looted by Syrian regime soldiers.

Budour Hassan
22 June 2018

One of the pictures and videos circulating on social media documenting the looting of Yarmouk by the Syrian regime forces. Source: Facebook/Yarmouk camp newsOn 16 July 1948, several units of the Israeli army, backed by the navy, occupied al-Tira, a Palestinian village on the western slopes of Mount Carmel in the Haifa District. The fall of al-Tira came after more than two months of siege and bombardment by Zionist militias met with fierce resistance by local Palestinian fighters.

During the two months of fighting, most of al-Tira's residents, numbering just over 6,000 at the start of 1948, were displaced or forced to flee. Among those displaced by Zionist militias was 15-year-old Dhahabiyeh Abu Rashed. The teenage girl and her family fled to Syria before moving into the newly built Yarmouk refugee camp.

Established by Syrian authorities in 1957 to accommodate the Palestinian refugees scattered across Syria, Yarmouk quickly morphed into a microcosm of the Palestine that once was. In that overcrowded space on the southern outskirts of Damascus, refugees reimagined their forbidden homeland and rebuilt it from scratch. They named the neighborhoods after their ethnically cleansed villages and preserved their eclectic native accents. They kept alive the struggle for Palestinian liberation and created a rich legacy of resistance and communal solidarity.

Yarmouk was the lifeline that connected Dhahabiyeh and tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees to Palestine

Yarmouk was the lifeline that connected Dhahabiyeh and tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees to Palestine. It was the thread weaving together their memories of home and a harbor protecting their right of return from drowning in oblivion.

For many in the camp, Yarmouk was not merely a makeshift sanctuary or a temporary residence to be promptly forgotten once they go home. You could often hear Yarmouk residents say, jokingly perhaps, that they would take a piece of Yarmouk with them after going back to Palestine. They would plant it amongst the almond and olive trees, a living testament to their perseverance and to the collective identity they fostered in Syria.

Was this special emotional attachment the reason for Dhahabiyeh Abu Rashed's insistence on staying in Yarmouk when most of her family, friends and loved ones had already left?

Did she cling to the camp because she did not want to be displaced again, seventy years after her first displacement? In Yarmouk, al-Tira feels like a heartbeat away and the right of return does not seem like an impossibility or an abstract. Leaving Yarmouk, however, means letting go of the certainty of return and giving up on the last remaining tangible bond with the land.

Did the green buses, used by the Syrian government to evict Syrians to the far away north, evoke memories of the forcible transfer of 1948? Dhahabiyeh must have thought that at 85, she could not cope with yet another uprooting.

Perhaps, though, she stayed because she did not have the means or the ability to flee. We will never know the answer, for Dhahabiyeh was among those killed in the Syrian-Russian shelling of the camp on 18 May 2018.

Three weeks earlier, Dhahabiyeh had lost another fellow survivor of the Nakba, the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

Inshirah Shaabi was a little child when Zionist death squads murdered her father Qassem Shaabi in Ein az-Zeitoun near Safed. Inshirah's father was among scores of Palestinian men and boys captured and summarily executed by the Palmach militia on 3-4 May 1948.

Much like Dhahabiyeh, Inshirah, affectionately known as Umm Jihad, insisted on remaining in Yarmouk, never relinquishing the dream of returning to Safed one day.

Following the destruction of her house by Russian air strikes on 24 April 2018, she chose to stay by her wounded friend who suffered a broken foot due to the air strike. They took refuge in the basement of a four-story building but there was no escaping the constant bombardment. After surviving the Nakba, the loss of her father, decades of self-imposed loneliness, a suffocating five-year siege, and numerous air strikes, Inshirah was killed in an air strike on 25 April.

Dhahabiyeh and Inshirah were among just 3,000 civilians trapped in Yarmouk after Islamic State fighters occupied it in April 2015, but the exodus and destruction of Yarmouk had started long before that fateful month.

For the first 20 months of the popular uprising that erupted in Syria in March 2011, Yarmouk, then the capital of the Palestinian diaspora, served as a safe haven for internally displaced Syrians fleeing government repression.

Although many of the Palestinian-Syrian youth opposed to the Syrian government participated in protests outside the camp and helped organize and document grassroots peaceful resistance activities, there was a collective tacit agreement to maintain the neutrality of the camp.

Few months before the outbreak of the Syrian uprising, 495,970 registered Palestinian refugees lived in Syria, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, UNRWA. Law 260, passed by the Syrian parliament in 1956, regulated the legal status of Palestinian refugees in Syria and granted them rights nearly equal to Syrian citizens, with the exception of the right to vote and run for office. The situation of Palestinian refugees in Syria, who made up nearly two per cent of the country's total population prior to 2011, was unique: they stuck to their Palestinian identity, heritage, and sense of community while simultaneously integrating into the country's social tapestry.

This dual identity pushed many youngsters from Yarmouk to join Syria's burgeoning social movement. They shared a strong sense of belonging to Syria and longed for building a free, more humane and just country. They were, however, wary of dragging the camp and the refugee population into direct confrontation with the government.

The destruction of Nahr al-Bared laid bare the vulnerability of Palestinian refugees

Fresh in their collective memory was the catastrophe of Nahr al-Bared. The Palestinian camp in northern Lebanon, home to 40,000 refugees, was destroyed by the Lebanese army in the conflict with the Jihadist group Fatah al-Islam, which occupied the camp between May and September of 2007. The destruction of Nahr al-Bared laid bare the vulnerability of Palestinian refugees during internal crises in their host countries. Thus, avoiding this scenario in Syria became a virtual consensus.

Yet, anti-government activists accused pro-government factions, most notably the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), of violating the consensus, cracking down on peaceful dissent, and sacrificing the precarious status of Palestinian refugees in order to safeguard the interests of the Assad regime.

They bring up the Naksa (defeat) Day protests in 2011 as an example of how the PFLP-GC and the Syrian regime showed utter disregard for the lives of Palestinian refugees to deflect attention from the unrest in Syria. On 5 June 2011, the PFLP-GC mobilized Palestinian refugee youth to take part in the protests at the border with the occupied Golan Heights. Many prominent figures in Yarmouk had warned against participating in those protests because of the likelihood of high casualties, as evidenced by Israel's killing of unarmed protesters on 15 May.

However, while the May 15 border marches were part of a protest movement across Palestine and the diaspora, the June 5 protests were orchestrated and coopted by regime-backed factions. During the protests, at least 23 Palestinian refugees, the majority of whom from Yarmouk, were killed by Israeli occupation forces near the border. Syrian soldiers stood idly by, sipping mate and tea while Israeli soldiers were callously shooting at protesters.

Convinced that the PFLP-GC threw their children to the wolves to score political points for the regime, Yarmouk residents turned the funerals of those killed by Israel in the border protests into a day of rage. Angry mourners set the PFLP-GC building ablaze and chanted anti-Assad slogans for the first time inside the camp. PFLP-GC gunmen responded with live bullets, killing several protesters.


Although the polarization in the camp continued to manifest itself in sporadic violent outbursts and recurring tensions, the camp remained on the margins of Syria's conflict. It was not until the end of 2012 that it fully descended into chaos.


Yarmouk was seen as a strategic front by both the Syrian regime and armed rebels


Following the transition of the overwhelmingly peaceful uprising into a full-fledged civil war in the summer of 2012, Yarmouk was seen as a strategic front by both the Syrian regime and armed rebels. Grassroots activists in the camp desperately tried to distance it from the battle raging in southern Damascus but militarization was gradually silencing their voices.

The presence of then-small armed opposition groups on the edge of the camp was a sufficient cloak for the Syrian regime to strike it.


On 16 December 2012, a Syrian warplane shelled Abdel-Qadir al-Husseini mosque, which also acted as a shelter for internally displaced people, and al-Fallujah school. It was the first time that the Syrian army deployed its air force against Yarmouk, killing and wounding dozens of civilians and sowing unprecedented panic and fear.

For survivors of the Nakba, the scenes of mass exodus triggered by the air strike were almost a repeat of the horror they fled in 1948.

In the immediate aftermath of the MiG strike, nearly 80 percent of the camp's 160,000 residents fled as Syrian government forces and their Palestinian allies imposed a partial siege on the camp. Rebel and Islamist groups, particularly Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis, a Palestinian Islamic militia affiliated with Hamas, grew in size and influence and so did their repressive practices and authoritarian grip.

In July 2013, the Syrian government and its allies tightened the siege, denying access to food and medical supplies and holding close to 20,000 civilians in an open-air prison. The siege of Yarmouk was part of a "surrender or starve" strategy, systematically employed by the Syrian government against civilians in rebel-held areas as a form of collective punishment. A report by Amnesty International documented the deaths of 128 Yarmouk inhabitants due to starvation.

Caught between regime bombardment and siege, and extreme repression by Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis and Jabhat al-Nusra, Yarmouk residents were left reeling.

"Yarmouk as we know is gone forever," Palestinian photographer and refugee Niraz Saied said back in 2014. "It is either heading towards complete decimation or becoming an Islamic emirate."

His prognosis turned out to be painfully accurate.

In April 2015, the Islamic State seized Yarmouk after defeating Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis, leading to yet another exodus. Thousands of Palestinian refugees fled to the neighboring town of Yelda, leaving behind 3,000 civilians and a camp in tatters. For those who stayed in Yarmouk, enduring three years of IS control and five years of regime siege was akin to slow death amid constantly deteriorating conditions and a state of sheer desperation.


Routing Islamic State terrorists and insurgent groups was the official justification for the Russian-backed regime offensive launched against the southern Damascus enclave, including Yarmouk, on 19 April 2018.

Justifying all-out annihilation under the guise of waging war on terror is immensely popular

After all, justifying all-out annihilation under the guise of waging war on terror is immensely popular. It dismisses the lives of trapped civilians as collateral damage at best, insignificant and disposable at worst. It normalizes collective punishment and dehumanizes the victims, portraying them as terrorist sympathizers and generalizing their towns or neighborhoods as terrorist strongholds.

In the case of Yarmouk, this justification overlooked the alleged complicity of the Syrian regime in facilitating the surprising IS invasion of the camp: in April 2015, Yarmouk was under complete regime siege and regime forces tightly controlled all entry and exit routes into the camp. Yet this did not seem to hinder IS fighters from entering the camp through the neighborhood of al-Hajar al-Aswad, also under regime siege.

After an intensive military campaign that lasted for just over a month, the Syrian army "liberated" Yarmouk after having besieged, destroyed, and emptied it of its people. Syrian soldiers celebrated the liberation of Yarmouk by looting all that could be stolen – and sold later - from homes and shops. The looting was so massive and widespread that many refugees from Yarmouk expressed their relief that their houses had been destroyed by then. "You have to look at the silver lining," one displaced refugee from Yarmouk said with a wry smile. "There was nothing left for them to steal from my home because it was completely destroyed by an air strike."

The looting carried out under the approving gaze of senior Syrian army officers included furniture, wooden doors, wires, heaters, and sanitary installations.

For the past forty years, the Syrian regime has been "looting" and exploiting the Palestinian cause to bankroll its quest for legitimacy or to condone and sugarcoat the oppression of Syrians. All that is left to steal, load and sell is one refrigerator here and a mattress there. In the meantime, supporters of the Syrian regime continue to blame the destruction of the camp on armed groups, absolving the regime of any responsibility.

Palestinian thinker Salameh Kaileh claims that expelling insurgent groups was merely a pretext for the systematic destruction of camps, citing the plight of Khan Eshieh. Located approximately 15 miles southwest of Damascus, Khan Eshieh refugee camp was subjected to heavy shelling and siege by government forces despite the absence of any armed groups.

Kaileh argues that the concerted campaign targeting Syria's Palestinian camps, especially Yarmouk, is aimed at erasing the Palestinian presence in Syria and getting rid of the refugee "problem," the heart of the Palestinian cause. Yarmouk embodied the inalienability of the right of return and represented the bond between refugees and Palestine. Destroying it, driving out Palestinian refugees, and blocking those who did stay in Syria from returning to the camp, constitute an attempt at breaking this bond.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData