Before the Syrian civil war the Yarmouk district on the outskirts of Damascus was home to almost 150,000 registered Palestinian refugees. It was probably the largest and most well-developed refugee settlement in the world; it was certainly the biggest in Syria.
In May 2018 the last Daesh fighters who had occupied the camp, along with other Syrian rebels, were driven out. The area now stands in ruins and is completely uninhabitable. There are plans for the complete redevelopment of southern Damascus, and the former camp residents may find themselves excluded.
During the war the Syrian government used barrel and cluster bombs to repeatedly flush rebels out of the area. The rebels vied for control of the district and had embedded themselves throughout the camp. The Syrian army were indiscriminate in their bombing of Yarmouk, particularly in the last month before the area was retaken. The UN says Assad turned the area into a “death camp.” Russia, Syrian and Iranian forces held it under siege and levelled it in order to remove Daesh. Most of the Palestinian refugees who lived were displaced.
It will take years to rebuild the area, and whether it can then become home to the refugees again is a source of ongoing tension. Many Palestinians fought for Assad during the civil war. Reports suggest that most are sympathetic to the government and blame the rebels for their situation. Almost all of them hoped to return to Yarmouk as they have never lived anywhere else.
Such allegiances are not surprising. Yarmouk may have been besieged by government forces and their backers, but the rebels who took control, aware that many of the Palestinians were not on their side, were equally ruthless. They holed themselves up in peoples homes, used civilians as human shields, and carried out indiscriminate killing and the seizure of property.
But it is the government’s indiscriminate destruction of Yarmouk that has now drawn the attention back to the district.
Set up in 1957, the camp was densely populated; it has not had the tents and the other signs of a refugee camp for a long time. It had well functioning schools, hospitals, shops, cafes and other businesses. The camp compared favourably to others in Syria. It had more doctors and engineers and government employees than some districts of Damascus.
Assad was viewed as one of the most pro- Palestinian of regional leaders. Syria was one of the better places for Palestinian refugees to live. They could work for the government and could buy homes. Hamas had offices in Syria and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command was headquartered there.
A huge amount has been lost due to the war several hospitals and clinics as well as UN operated schools and two women’s centres. The battle for Yarmouk during the civil war is not as simple as the camp being invaded from the outside by hostile rebels and a government supporting population being driven out. The Free Syrian Army had a Palestinian brigade while the PFLP backed Assad.
After 2014, with the increasing influence of Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, Hamas the ruling Sunni Islamist faction that controls Gaza withdrew its support for rebels in Syria. They closed their offices in Damascus in 2012.
A crisis meeting in Beirut between Hamas and Hezbollah agreed that they should maintain their unity over the destruction of Israel and that it was vital for Hamas to maintain its links with Iran.
Despite defiant speeches from former Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas know that they need Iranian backing to continue to operate. From this point on they largely absented themselves from the Syrian conflict.
By 2015 there were only 18,000 Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk.
In April 2015 Daesh, at the time still working with the then Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al- Nusra, entered the camp, eventually taking control of more than 90% of it. Following conscription into the army and the continuous bombing of the camp the population was again more than halved, bringing the population down to 8,000.
A Qatari-brokered ceasefire in 2017 saw some rebel factions withdraw but Daesh remained in place until May 2018.
In April there were more than 580 air raids which included cluster bombs, missiles, barrel bombs and mortar fire. In one week a further 5,000 Palestinians were displaced leaving just 1,000-2,000 residents in the camp. The last hospital was destroyed during the offensive. Once al-Nusra fighters were evacuated, only a small number of elderly residents remained inside.
Prior to the government regaining control the camp they had already released the plans to rebuild southern Damascus that would include areas that border the camp. Suggestions that Palestinians might be moved out to scrubland rather than returned to the area are clearly not unfounded. The reconstruction of Syria provides will provide a lot of private investment opportunities.
The livelihoods and rights the Palestinians once had in Yarmouk have been annihilated