Middle East

Profile: Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp

Memorial plaques with images of Jerusalem are made for Palestinian families in Yarmouk
Generations of Palestinians have lived in Syria, many of them at Yarmouk

Yarmouk is considered by many the de facto capital of the Palestinian refugee diaspora.

When the Syrian authorities set out in 1957 to build an unofficial camp for those who fled or were displaced from their homes during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, they allocated land about 8km (5 miles) south of central Damascus.

Within a few years, the camp had become one of the biggest in the Middle East.

And as a result of the demographic and geographic expansion of the Syrian capital, it is today one of its most populous and important districts.

More than 150,000 registered refugees are resident in the densely populated area, which has its own mosques, schools and public buildings.

It is administered by the Syrian ministry of social affairs and labour, but the UN Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa) provides health and education services.

Literacy and numeracy rates among Palestinians in Yarmouk are among the highest not just in Syria, but across the Arab world. Many are professionals and living conditions are far better than those in other Palestinian refugee camps in Syria.

Political power

Much of Yarmouk's success is owed to a law passed in 1956 that granted Palestinian refugees almost the same rights as Syrian nationals, particularly in the areas of employment, trade and military service. It also significantly increased their freedom of movement, something refugees resident in neighbouring countries did not enjoy.

And after the military coup of 1963 that propelled the Baath Party to power, Palestinians in Yarmouk launched organisations to "resist" the Israeli occupation of their homeland. Thousands of youths joined newly established groups like Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

Hundreds of these youths were subsequently killed in battles with Israeli forces, many during the invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Palestinian fighters were able to reach the front line under the protection of the Syrian army, whose troops were deployed in Lebanon between 1976 and 2005.

In 1983, the residents of Yarmouk experienced difficulties when the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad declared Yasser Arafat, the leader of Fatah and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), persona non grata and barred him from the country. Arafat accused Assad at the time of encouraging a split in the Fatah.

In addition to banishing the PLO's leadership, the Syrian government came to see Yarmouk as an opposition stronghold and also arrested thousands of Arafat supporters.

Afterwards, residents began to concentrate on commercial, rather than political and military activities. This resulted in Yarmouk becoming a centre of commerce in Damascus, and today tens of thousands of Syrians live and work there.

With the PLO's relations with the Syrian government strained, the Palestinian Islamist movements Hamas and Islamic Jihad sought to fill the political power vacuum in Yarmouk.

Leaders from both groups moved in and recruited scores of youths to their causes. Hamas's political leader Khaled Meshaal lived in Yarmouk until he refused to endorse President Bashar al-Assad's handling of the uprising against his rule.

Once the Hamas Political Bureau had relocated to Egypt and Qatar in early 2012, they declared their wholehearted support of the Syrian opposition.

Drawn into conflict

The departure of Hamas left the residents of Yarmouk without any political representation or protection. An offshoot of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - the General Command, which supports President Assad - soon deployed fighters around the camp, saying they wanted to prevent infiltration by the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA).

This did not, however, prevent the camp from being drawn into the conflict.

Dozens of Palestinian refugees have been killed in Yarmouk in the past 21 months, according to Palestinian sources, who have also documented the deaths of more than 700 others across Syria in the same period.

On 16 December, government warplanes bombed Yarmouk for the first time, after the FSA sought to seize control of the camp from the PFLP-GC. Some were reportedly killed when a rocket struck a mosque where people had taken shelter.

The government meanwhile blamed a jihadist group, the al-Nusra Front.

The Palestinians have found themselves on yet another journey towards the unknown, having had to leave their houses behind as their ancestors did six decades ago.

While the rebels seek to establish control of the camp, tanks and artillery machines belonging to the government are scrambling to reclaim it.