Yarmuk, an epicenter of Syria’s bloody conflict

Smoke billows during Syrian army air strikes as seen from the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus. (AFP)
Updated 24 April 2018
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Yarmuk, an epicenter of Syria’s bloody conflict

BEIRUT: Poverty and exile, siege and starvation, militant rule and government shelling — few places have seen more suffering in Syria’s seven year, atrocity-filled war than the Palestinian camp of Yarmuk.
A striking 2014 picture of tired, gaunt-looking residents massing among the ruins for a food distribution drew comparisons with a World War II ghetto and became a symbol of the Syrian conflict.
The gutted neighborhood in southern Damascus, which is now Daesh’s last urban redoubt in Syria or Iraq, was once Syria’s biggest Palestinian refugee camp, home to around 160,000 people.
Years of crippling siege and bombardment by the regime of President Bashar Assad, whose presidential compound is visible from the camp, had already sent tens of thousands of them into a second exile.
Yarmuk is one of the closest spots to central Damascus to have been controlled by Daesh.
After months of sporadic shelling as it concentrated its efforts on retaking the rebel stronghold of Eastern Ghouta, the resurgent regime launched a final offensive last week to retake Yarmuk.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, around 1,000 Daesh fighters remain in Yarmuk and the adjacent neighborhoods of Hajjar Al-Aswad, Tadamun and Qadam.
Most of them are former members of Al-Qaeda’s Syrian ex-affiliate Al-Nusra Front, but Daesh fighters also include Palestinian refugees who joined when the extremists took over much of the camp in 2015.
Facing them are regime and allied forces who have turned their attention to militant-held pockets in southern Damascus after completing their recapture of Ghouta, an area east of the capital.
According to the Britain-based Observatory, the Syrian army is leading the battle, with Russian officers supervising and Palestinian militias contributing hundreds of foot soldiers.
The Observatory said dozens of fighters had already been killed in the fighting on both sides.
Daesh militants have posted several grisly pictures on their social media accounts purportedly showing regime or allied fighters they beheaded.
But the militants are unlikely to hold out much longer. Seven years of conflict that made Yarmuk one of the conflict’s worst humanitarian and military flashpoints looks set to end in further death and destruction.
Yarmuk camp was opened in 1957 with tents set up for Palestinian families forced to leave their homes by the establishment of Israel. These were soon replaced by permanent structures.
The wider area of Yarmuk was also home to hundreds of thousands of Syrians.
In 2011, regime attempts to use the traditionally apolitical Palestinian refugee community to raise tensions with Israel and divert attention from the internal uprising in Syria backfired.
Syrian opposition groups came to see Yarmuk as a potential forward base in their campaign to unseat Assad. The fighting that ensued levelled the area and forced most residents to flee.
According to the United Nations’ agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA, most of the camp’s 6,000 residents have been displaced by the recent fighting.
The agency’s spokesman Chris Gunness said he was “deeply concerned” about them and asked the belligerent parties to give the UN humanitarian access to the besieged neighborhood.
Yarmuk, which was meant as a haven for displaced Palestinians, had come to symbolize a humanitarian catastrophe that caused some of the worst displacement since World War II.
A picture taken during a UN food distribution in January 2014 gripped the world’s imagination and drew attention to Yarmuk’s plight.
The photo — depicting thousands of haggard-looking civilians thronging the ruins of their neighborhood as they waited for a food handout — drew parallels with the Warsaw ghetto, even in the Israeli press.
Gunness, the UNRWA spokesman, said that year: “The lexicon of man’s inhumanity to man has a new word: Yarmuk.”
Stories of children eating paper, families surviving on animal feed, and outbreaks of typhoid made Yarmuk a cause celebre, contributing to the global pressure on Assad.


Latest Gaza flare-up: What does it mean for the blockaded strip?

This cease-fire, like others before it, is fragile and could easily be derailed. (AFP)
Updated 18 November 2018
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Latest Gaza flare-up: What does it mean for the blockaded strip?

  • “Unfortunately aggression against the Palestinian people will continue.”
  • Israel and Hamas have fought three wars in Gaza since 2008

AFP JERUSALEM: A truce in Gaza has left Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu battling to keep his government afloat after Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman walked out in protest.

Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, welcomed Lieberman’s resignation on Wednesday as a “victory” — but what will it mean for Gaza?

Israel and Hamas have fought three wars in Gaza since 2008, interspersed with simmering hostilities and periodic spikes in violence.

Hamas refuses to recognize Israel. The Jewish state, like the US and the EU, defines Hamas as a “terrorist” organization. For over a decade Israel has maintained a crippling blockade on the coastal strip.

An apparently botched Israeli army raid into the Gaza Strip triggered the worst escalation in violence since 2014 and brought the two sides to the brink of war.

On Tuesday, Hamas and Israel accepted an Egyptian-mediated cease-fire. Denouncing it as “capitulation,” Lieberman resigned from his post the next day, leaving the government with a majority of just one seat in Parliament.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad declared the cease-fire with military powerhouse Israel “a political victory.”

It came after Israel in October allowed Qatar to provide Gaza with fuel to help ease its chronic electricity crisis, under a UN-brokered deal.

In parallel, Egypt and the UN have been seeking to broker a long-term Gaza-Israel truce in exchange for Israel easing its embargo.

The events of the past week gave a boost to Hamas and its allies, said Gaza political analyst Mukhaimer Abu Saada. “But if there is a war that could change,” he said.

After the pounding Gaza took in 2014, most residents want above all to avoid a rerun. Indirect contacts between Israel and Hamas have eroded the status of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

A peace initiative by US President Donald Trump is expected to emerge in the next few months. The PA fears that it will drive the wedge even deeper between Gaza the West Bank, two territories long envisaged as part of a unified Palestinian state.

Jamal Al-Fadi, a professor of political science in Gaza, says such a divide suits Israel. “We can not have results against Israel except by unity,” he said.

This cease-fire, like others before it, is fragile and could easily be derailed.

With the Israeli political tensions unleashed by Lieberman’s departure, there will be fresh domestic pressure on Netanyahu to hit Hamas harder.

“The coming days will be difficult” for Gaza, Al-Fadi said.

“It was a right-wing government and the (next) elections will bring another right-wing government,” he said.

“Unfortunately aggression against the Palestinian people will continue.”