Bulldozers scoop slow way to recovery in Syria’s Yarmuk

Tens of thousands have fled Yarmuk since Syria’s conflict started in 2011. (AFP)
Updated 12 October 2018
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Bulldozers scoop slow way to recovery in Syria’s Yarmuk

  • Off Yarmuk’s main artery, recently cleared side streets are flanked by buildings ravaged by years of fighting
  • With about a fifth of Yarmuk reduced to rubble in the war, there is still much work to be done

YARMUK, Syria: Not far from where he used to live, Palestinian engineer Mahmud Khaled watched as bulldozers rumbled back and forth scooping up smashed concrete from the devastated streets of Syria’s Yarmuk.
Once home to 160,000 Palestinian refugees, the camp in the Damascus suburbs has been emptied of its inhabitants and pounded to rubble in Syria’s seven-year war.
But five months after regime forces expelled the last militants in the area, soldiers now stand guard at the camp’s entrance, wearing face masks to protect themselves against the dust billowing up into the air.
On a narrow street inside the camp where he grew up, Khaled has returned to help oversee bulldozers and diggers engaged in joint Palestinian-Syrian clean-up operations.
“When we first entered, we were horrified by what we saw,” said the 56-year-old engineer, wearing a light grey and white checkered shirt.
“But after we started the clean-up, it all started to look up,” Khaled said.
Off Yarmuk’s main artery, recently cleared side streets are flanked by buildings ravaged by years of fighting.
Some have been reduced to mountains of grey rubble and mangled rebar. In others, entire floors dangle dangerously downwards, their steel rods jutting out.
“We have shifted 50,000 cubic meters of rubble and reopened all the main roads,” Khaled said.
But “it will be a while before families can come back,” he added.
As Khaled surveyed the neighborhood, a yellow bulldozer spilled rubble into a large red truck behind him.
Tens of thousands have fled Yarmuk since Syria’s conflict started in 2011 and government forces imposed a crippling siege on the then rebel-held camp a year later.
Since the latest round of fighting to expel the Daesh group ended in May, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) said no residents have been allowed to return.
Walking through the camp, Khaled pointed out his former home and the office where he used to work. The first had been damaged in fighting, while the second was completely destroyed.
With about a fifth of Yarmuk reduced to rubble in the war, according to an initial estimate, Khaled said there is still much work to be done.
And although he estimates 40 percent of the buildings could be lived in, another 40 percent need major work before their residents can return.
When he visited the camp in May, UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness described it as lying “in ruins.”
Basic services such as water and electricity were so severely damaged, he said, that it was hard to imagine people returning any time soon.
Funded by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Syrian government, the clearing operation has been ongoing for 20 days and is expected to take another month to complete.
But there are no clear plans yet for the reconstruction of the neighborhood or its ravaged infrastructure.
PLO official Anwar Abdel Hadi said he hoped reconstruction would start “as soon as possible so that our people can return to the camp.”
“But the rebuilding is still awaiting a government decision,” he said.
Back in Yarmuk, Ibrahim Am Ali walked between the bulldozers, oblivious to the dust permeating his clothes.
“I was desperate when I saw how destroyed the building was where my brothers and I had gathered over the past years,” said the 74-year-old, also part of the team overseeing the clean-up work.
Now “we have started rebuilding the camp,” the Syrian-Palestinian said, wearing a light purple shirt.
“Perhaps I will never see it completely rebuilt, but it’s enough for me to have taken part in the very beginning.”


Israeli forces wound 77 Palestinians at protest near Gaza Strip border

Protesters run for cover from teargas during Friday’s protests in Gaza. (AP)
Updated 20 October 2018
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Israeli forces wound 77 Palestinians at protest near Gaza Strip border

  • Palestinians have been protesting along the border since March 30, demanding an end to Israel’s blockade of the territory and the right to return to lands that Palestinians fled or were driven from upon Israel’s founding in 1948

GAZA: Israeli soldiers shot and wounded 77 Palestinians during protests near the Gaza Strip border on Friday, the enclave’s Health Ministry said.
An Israeli military spokeswoman said about 10,000 demonstrators massed at the border and that some threw burning tires, grenades and explosive devices at the troops across the fence. About 30 Palestinians suffered tear gas inhalation, the Gaza Health Ministry said.
But the protest was relatively small — some of the previous gatherings included about 30,000 people, a sign that tensions that have built up in the past few days may be easing.
On Thursday, Israel had ramped up armored forces along the Gaza border, a day after a rocket fired from the enclave destroyed a home in southern Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, vowed “very strong action” if attacks continued. A Palestinian official said Egyptian security officials had held separate meetings in the past few days with Israeli counterparts and with leaders of the Palestinian Hamas group that rules Gaza in an effort to prevent an escalation in violence.
Palestinians have been protesting along the border since March 30, demanding an end to Israel’s blockade of the territory and the right to return to lands that Palestinians fled or were driven from upon Israel’s founding in 1948. About 200 Gazans have been killed by Israeli troops since the protests started, according to Palestinian Health Ministry figures. Pale stinians have launched incendiary balloons and kites into Israel and on occasion breached the Israeli frontier fence. More than 2 million Palestinians are packed into the narrow coastal enclave. Israel pulled troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but maintains tight control of its land and sea borders.
Egypt also restricts movement in and out of Gaza on its border. Nickolay Mladenov, the UN’s Mideast peace envoy, earlier urged Israel and the Palestinians to exercise restraint ahead of the protests. Mosque loudspeakers in the Palestinian enclave urged Gazans to attend Friday’s demonstrations, despite statements by Gaza’s leaders that Hamas seeks to rein in the protests. “In light of today’s planned Gaza march, I urge all to exercise restraint, to proceed in a peaceful manner, and to avoid escalation,” Nickolay Mladenov said in a statement. “The UN is working with Egypt and its partners to avoid violence, address all humanitarian issues and support reconciliation.”
Egyptian intelligence officials met with Hamas and Israeli officials on Thursday in efforts to broker a cease-fire and ease months of deadly border protests. Egypt and the UN have attempted to negotiate a truce between Israel and Hamas for weeks in a bid to ease tensions in the beleaguered Gaza Strip.
Hamas has organized weekly protests since March that seek, in part, to secure an easing of the Egyptian-Israeli blockade of the Palestinian enclave imposed after the Islamic militant group seized control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority in 2007 in an armed coup.
At least 156 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire at the protests, and an Israeli solider was killed by a Palestinian sniper.
The protests have intensified in recent weeks as Egyptian and UN cease-fire negotiations have faltered, and cross-border violence earlier this week has brought tensions to a simmer.
On Wednesday, a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip destroyed a house in the Israeli city of Beersheba in the worst bout of violence in recent weeks. Israel retaliated with airstrikes and has beefed up its military forces along the border. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Security Cabinet resolved to retaliate more severely to cross-border attacks, but has thus far refrained from further action, suggesting it was giving the Egyptians a chance to restore calm.