Yarmouk refugee camp and the Palestinian diaspora’s tragedy

Yarmouk refugee camp and the Palestinian diaspora’s tragedy
Comment: Hussam Abu Hamed argues that the Palestinian diaspora has been marginalised by events in Palestine itself and neglected to the extent that camps have been easy victims of war.
6 min read
11 Apr, 2015
Yarmouk fell prey to takfiri groups [AFP]

The Palestinian refugee camps of the diaspora were once social incubators for the Palestinian revolution. But the camps have offered little protection. In Jordan and Lebanon they have been blighted by war and it is no longer possible to speak of any meaningful Palestinian presence in Iraq. Such a tragedy is made worse for the Palestinians because they have not yet developed the ability to selectively edit their national memory.

On many occasions, Palestinian refugee camps were not only left without security or military protection, but also without political and social protection. They were the weakest link whenever any social, security or political disturbances occurred in the countries hosting them.

Still, since the experiences of Jordan and Lebanon, we felt it sufficient to blame forces branded as traitors and working for outside parties, counter-revolutionary forces and reactionary regimes.

Palestinian refugee camps were ... without political and social protection.

Although those forces cannot be exempted from their responsibility in creating these situations, we Palestinians did not have the necessary courage to engage in self-criticism to determine our own responsibility for what happened and draw the necessary lessons so that past mistakes could be avoided. So the tragedy recurred in Iraq.

The story is no different for Yarmouk, in the south of Damascus.


The camps in the diaspora gave rise to and nurtured the armed struggle, and played an important role in providing the diaspora with the unity needed for mobilisation. However, the militarisation of the Palestinian struggle meant it was difficult to combine armed struggle with political and popular action.

The social dimension necessary for a national struggle was neglected, or was reduced to mere social services in one area or another on the pretext that the Palestinian diaspora lacked social, geographical and political cohesion.

Since the Madrid Peace Conference and the Oslo Accords the armed struggle, which originated in the diaspora, was retired until further notice. This affected all political and popular activity in the diaspora and rendered it less effective, making the diaspora vulnerable to social fragmentation and political marginalisation.

The Yarmouk refugee camp was the true capital of the Palestinian diaspora, not only because it is the largest gathering of Palestinian refugees in the diaspora, but also because of the effective role it played in all phases of the Palestinian revolution.

Unlike the Fatah movement and the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which settled in Tunis in of the mid-1980's, most Palestinian factions were concentrated in Yarmouk. The majority of them opposed the Oslo Accords, so they limited themselves to a policy of accusing others of treason and issuing denunciations without the ability to put forth an alternative strategy or formulating a programme of resistance that suited the Palestinian diaspora.

This left them ineffective in the eyes of the majority. Meanwhile, factions extraneous to the PLO, such as Hamas, which originated inside Palestine and extended into the diaspora, built a popular base, particularly in Yarmouk, on the basis of their role in the armed struggle inside Palestine.

However, they fared no better than other factions in the diaspora, and their action began to resemble the work of charitable societies in which religious missionary activity took precedence over nationalist activity.

The Palestinian factions were in need of rejuvenation, As soon as the second Intifada broke out inside Palestine and took on a military aspect, those factions began looking for a foothold. They moved their centre of gravity to Palestine after losing it outside Palestine. This meant they completely abandoned their responsibility toward the diaspora. Yarmouk, having been an intellectual centre and a cultural and social hub, began to turn into a closed environment.

As of March 2011, the Palestinian factions and powers in Syria had no emergency plan to confront developments that could negatively affect the Palestinian presence in Syria. Political impotence probably exceeded political naivety that assumed that the camp would remain neutral until the end. Neutrality was regarded as an obvious demand that would be respected by all parties, but no actual measures were taken to guarantee it.

Palestinian factions in Syria had no emergency plan to confront development that could affect the presence in Syria.

However, the divisions among Palestinian factions regarding their positions on the Syrian crisis, and the conflicting loyalties and interests of those factions contributed to involving the camp in the crisis.

Those divisions were subsequently a factor in precluding a solution to the camp's crisis. For two whole years, during which the camp was besieged and humanitarian conditions inside it deteriorated to a miserable degree, PLO factions and other Palestinian powers were unable to offer any real help to the civilians remaining inside.

They were unable to contribute to the lifting of the siege, send in sufficient humanitarian aid, or open a safe corridor for those wanting to leave the camp. They were only able to send in meagre and irregular amounts of aid, and to bring out limited numbers of the sick and injured, and some university students who needed to sit their exams. The excuse given was the difficult conditions arising from the complications of the Syrian situation.


When the Islamic State group (IS), attacked the camp, the PLO's impotence and its confused position were obvious in its early statements, which were issued by its political department in Damascus. They seemed like news reports issued by an independent news agency.

Aknaf Bait al-Maqdis - which is affiliated with Hamas and has recently shared military control of the camp with Jabhat al-Nusra - has repeatedly turned a blind eye to the latter's practices, which include mistreating and torturing the population and executing young men from the camp in public squares on the pretext of irreligious behaviour.

Aknaf Bait al-Maqdis has even colluded with IS and paved the way for it. Hence, the most recent events, in some way, is the price of the group's continued unclear stance towards these extremist groups on the pretext that their ideology and beliefs bear some similarities to its own. Previously, some parties even held civilians in Yarmouk responsible to a certain extent for their own displacement from the camp. However, those parties will not be glad today to witness the tragedy of 20,000 people turning into the tragedy of 160,000 people, although each of those tragedies is very bitter.

The least that must be done is to open a safe corridor to allow civilians to leave the camp, and to take practical measures to preserve whatever Palestinian presence remains in Syria.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.