Assad and the Palestinians: from Tal al-Zaatar to Yarmouk

Assad and the Palestinians: from Tal al-Zaatar to Yarmouk
The emergence of IS inside Yarmouk camp has led to simplistic and dangerous impressions that isolate the Palestinians in the camp from the history and geography of the Syrian uprising.
4 min read
07 April, 2015

Palestinians flee Yarmuk camp

Along with a government siege and bombardment, the Palestinians in Yarmouk are now facing new threats.

Last Wednesday, IS militants stormed the camp. Since then, deadly clashes have taken place between Palestinian factions, supported by Ahrar al-Sham and other Syrian rebels inside the camp on one hand, and IS fighters on the other.

Thousands of civilians are now at the mercy of IS swords and Assad's barrels.

A Palestinian official said on Monday that a delegation was heading to Damascus for talks on finding a way to rescue residents tarpped inside the Yarmouk refugee camp. 

Ahmed Majdalani, an official with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), told AFP that the delegation would focus its efforts on providing security and assistance to the camp. 

Majdalani accused IS militants of "seeking to control the whole camp" and to use it "as a springboard for attacks on the Syrian capital Damascus because of its strategic location."

The geostrategic location of the camp on the outskirts of Damascus led the Assad regime to surround the camp at an early stage of the Syrian uprising against his regime, to ensure that the camp is kept out of the revolution.

Before IS reached the camp, around 18,000 civilians, including a large number of children, were trapped in 

Early on, the camp became a stronghold for opposition forces, according to United Nations agency working with Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.

Not so different from other Syrian towns, the siege on Yarmouk includes state-sponsored horror from above, most notoriously Assad's barrel bombs.

Instead of isolating Yarmouk from history and geography of Syria, the story of Yarmouk must be narrated in the context of the military history of Syria's Baathist regime and the history of the Syrian revolution. 

The Syrian regime has a history of atrocities against Palestinian camps. Bashar's military mentality of siege and bombardement goes back to his father Hafez al-Assad and his intervention in the Lebanese civil war.

The Syrian intervention in Lebanon, with Israeli consent, served to override the Palestinian resistance and massacre  civilians in Palestinian camps, mainly in Tal al-Zaatar, Jesr al-Basha, and Dbayeh. 

The siege of Tal al-Zaatar

During the Lebanese civil war, Tal al-Zaatar, a camp that was inhabited by over 50,000 Palestinian refugees, was besieged by Lebanese right-wing militias backed by the forces of late president of Syria, Hafez al-Assad.

The Syrian-Lebanese offensive on the camp lasted for around two months, after fierce resistance from the Palestinian armed factions.

Several books on contemporary history of Lebanon narrates the Syrian atrocities in Tal al-Zaatar. Militia forces are said to have machine-gunned refugee columns during civilian evacuation. 

Others were killed with gunfire, grenades and knives, and numerous cases of rape followed the fall of the camp on August 12, 1976.

The untold story of Yarmouk camp

Prior to the revolution in Syria, Yarmouk, a suburb just south of Damascus city, was home to over 160,000 Palestine refugees. 

In December 2012 and in the months since, at least 140,000 Palestine refugees fled their homes in Yarmouk, as armed opposition groups established a presence in the area, with government forces controlling the periphery.

Between December 2012 and June 2013, civilians could still access UNRWA assistance at the Zahera entrance to Yarmouk.

However, from mid-July 2013, Palestine refugees have been trapped in the area, with little or no access or freedom of movement.

Yarmouk has been under government siege for nearly two years, leading to starvation and illnesses. A report by Amnesty International a year ago reveals that starvation tactics against civilians have been used as a weapon of war by the Syrian government.

Since the siege on Yarmouk started two years ago, people from inside the camp have been trying to document and expose the humanitarian tragedies.

Photos and videos of people starving to death were helplessly circulated among activists and Syrians.

When finally Assad regime allowed UNRWA to enter the camp and provide aid, the size of the crisis was exposed to the world. Photo of thousands of Palestinians lining up for aid circulated worldwide. 

Yet, a motionless mass of Palestinians reflected in a photo inevitably undermines a nuanced process of controlling and subjugating Yarmouk: a camp that refused to serve Assad in his battle to stay in power.

The apolitical representation of the humanitarian crisis in Yarmouk when UNRWA went in a year ago is now replaced with political misrepresentation of the crisis in Yarmouk when IS went in a week ago. 

In other words, the image of Palestinians in Yarmouk has changed from helpless starving masses to helpless masses under IS threat.

The discourse largely understates the responsibility of the Syrian regime in besieging and bombarding the Palestinian population since the early days of the revolution.

As the Palestinians try to resist IS expansion, Assad complements the siege by bombarding the camp from above.  

In order to understand the crisis in Yarmouk, Assad's perpetual war and siege of the camp, and the role the camp has played in the Syrian revolution must be acknowledged. 

Reducing the crisis to the emergence of IS in the camp is simplistic and has dire political implications. 

Separating Yarmouk's suffering from that of Syria - specifically besieged Syrian towns and cities like Deir Ezzor and Aleppo - gives Yarmouk an 'exceptional' status for a rather nation-wide strategy of war implemented by Assad on Palestinians and Syrians indiscriminately.