(Source: Jafra Foundation, via Valentina Napolitano) (Source: Jafra Foundation, via Valentina Napolitano)

When protests against the regime of the Assad family first started during March 2011, al-Yarmouk camp,[2] much like other Palestinian refugee camps, found itself inserted in a rapidly changing environment. The Palestinian stance and participation has been forged, on the one hand, by the politically sensitive status of this community, and, on the other hand, by the geographical evolution of the Syrian mobilization as well as the shift which occurred in the very nature of the uprising from a series of peaceful actions to a full-scale military conflict.

Al-Yarmouk camp attempted to have a neutral stance, and with the spreading of protests in the country. However, with the increasing of armed clashes in neighborhoods around the camp, Palestinians became progressively engaged in the armed conflict. The bombardments by the Syrian air force in December 2012 caused a massive displacement of residents out of the camp.[3] Currently, al-Yarmouk inhabitants are estimated at 18,000 people, who since July 2013 are enduring a siege by the regime forces and its Palestinian alley, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC), who blocked the circulation of people and food provisions.[4]

Before the beginning of the Syrian crisis, al-Yarmouk camp was known as being the biggest Palestinian agglomerate in Syria and the main center of political and social activities in the country. Despite refugee marginalization by the Palestinian national movement, after the signature of the Oslo accords in 1993, and the restrictions imposed to them by the Syrian regime, al-Yarmouk camp succeeded in conserving a network of political and social organizations mobilizing for their national cause.

When the Syrian anti-regime mobilization started, the Palestinian social and political networks underwent a process of transformation and conversion. Parts of the nationalist organizations provided an organizational basis for the mobilization of Palestinians within the ranks of the uprising. Moreover, as in other Syrian cities and villages, the uprising lead to the formation in al-Yarmouk of completely new civil organizations created in order to manage different aspects of anti-regime mobilization and, above all, the management of the humanitarian crisis. This paper will argue that because of the previous existence of national networks, Palestinians in Syria are able to exploit their long dated social and political skills to face the new crisis. They also are able to propose new forms of collective organizations which would play a key role in the reconstruction of the camp in a post-conflict phase.

First forms of collective action appeared in summer 2012. Similar to several Syrian cities and villages, a “coordination committee” was formed in al-Yarmouk.

Different to other Palestinian refugee camps in the cities of Dera’a,[5] Latakia[6] and Homs[7] which were affected by the conflict from the beginning,[8] al-Yarmouk camp succeeded in keeping a neutral position during the first year of the uprising, because of the less involvement of Damascus city in the mobilization. During this time al-Yarmouk played a central role in hosting displaced Syrians who fled bombarded regions. First came residents of Homs, and later people from adjacent neighborhoods. “In the beginning, Syrians came to take shelter in the camp because they were sure that the regime was not going to touch Palestinians!” said Basela, 45 years old, who together with other Palestinians and Syrians started at that time to work in the organization of relief effort to those displaced:

We founded the organization for the Syrian-Palestinian contact, because we wanted to do something in order to show that we, Palestinians, were active in the Revolution. There we started to distribute food baskets to the displaced while we were scotching underneath it signs which read “Syrian-Palestinian Contact”. We wanted to change the image that Syrians had about us! We started to collect donations from the shops of the camp. At that time, many people worked individually, simple people as old as my mother who went to collect donations from the houses of friends and parents.

Palestinians of al-Yarmouk were firstly individually mobilized in humanitarian help to displaced Syrians. They took part in protests happening in other areas mainly in the neighboring quarter of Midan, with the aim to avoid the identification of the camp to the Syrian opposition. During this time, al-Yarmouk camp was uniquely the theatre of “flash mob” protests which were rapidly dispersed by the regime forces. Mass protests occurred after the Nakba and the Naksa (referring to the Arab defeat in the 1967 War) commemorations in May and June 2011, but these were still connected to the national Palestinian question,[9] even if the regime attempted to manipulate them.

First forms of collective action appeared in summer 2012. Similar to several Syrian cities and villages, a “coordination committee” was formed in al-Yarmouk. Whilst these forms of collective organizations played a central role in coordinating protests and diffusing information, the committee in al-Yarmouk has had a marginal role. This is so because of the existence of main local actors which took charge of the management of the crisis situation but also because of the weak implication of al-Yarmouk in the first phase of the peaceful anti-regime mobilization during which committees grow up.

The camp failover towards the uprising is evident by the mass procession organized on 14 July 2012. The next day after the neighboring quarter of Tadamon (where both Syrians and Palestinians live) was shelled, funerals coming out of al-Yarmouk camp mobilized thousands of people in the streets. Since this protest, which took an open anti-regime tone, the immunity which Palestinians enjoyed until then disappeared. “Before, when they used to arrest us the police treated us well as Palestinians. After having looked at our identity card they would let us walk…but after the Tadamon shelling we became all associated with revolution.” said Basela. Al-Yarmouk camp was no longer a secure shelter. In September 2012, the Free Syrian Army took control of the camp, which became a battlefield between opponents and the regular regime forces. The humanitarian crisis that had resulted from the shelling of the Tadamon neighborhood favored the emergence of a number of civil organizations in al-Yarmouk and it provoked also a new posturing for social actors which were already active in the camp itself.Self-managementMany social organizations (charity associations, youth and training centers, sport clubs, etc.) independent or belonging to Palestinian national movement,[10] transformed during the uprising in humanitarian organizations, as the Jafra youth center. Founded in the 2000s by a group of young people, Jafra is one of the numerous independent associations that have been created to coordinate the solidarity mobilization with the Second Intifada in the occupied Palestinian territory. “The idea of the center was born after the Second Intifada” said Hazem, a young man in his thirties and founder of the centre. He continued:

At that time, many young people wanted to implicate themselves in political and cultural activities. After Oslo, all political organizations abandoned the youth in order to focus on these internal politics. This is why the youth did not trust those organizations and tried instead to mobilize themselves outside them by creating independent associations.

With the eruption of the Syrian uprising, Jafra youth found themselves confronted with new priorities engendered by the uprising and by the arrival of displaced Syrians into the camp itself:

After the shelling of Tadamon we realized that there was a need to help and that this would be an organizational effort. We also wanted to attract the youth into humanitarian work while at the same time distancing ourselves as much as we could from the side of armed action.

Moreover, the Syrian uprising was behind the emergence of a number of activists and new social structures within al-Yarmouk, as well as other Syrian regions. These would manage the collective life after the withdrawal of the Syrian governmental institutions. This has been particularly visible in the north of the country, where many regions fell under the control of the Syrian opposition and where an alternative administration has been built up.[11]In al-Yarmouk, the local administration has been ensured by civil organizations and a ‘local council’ composed by representatives of the Palestinian national movement, of armed militias and civil organizations. In addition to that, many ‘alternative schools’ were opened up to face the closing of UNRWA’s institutions. “During the summer 2012 many massacres occurred provoking the death of many Palestinians, among them many young students”, said Khalil, a 48-year old teacher, who is the principal founder of the project. He continues:

With the starting of the school year, all parents were afraid to send their children to schools. My wife and I are both teachers, we did not want our children to stop their studies. For us, Palestinians, education represents the only means to secure our future. For this reason, we decided to give lessons to our children and those of our friends in a room of our house.

As a consequence of the siege imposed on al-Yarmouk, the number of children in need of schooling grew to four thousand. ‘Alternative schools’ have officially been recognized by UNRWA, which nevertheless remained less implicated in sponsoring them.

Jafra and the “alternative schools” are two examples of Palestinian civil organizations created to face the Syrian crisis. The development of Jafra shows how a juvenile association which was created to respond to specific expectations of young refugees inside al-Yarmouk, served as a basis to manage the humanitarian crisis. In addition, being previously known by the Syrian authorities, the group disposed as well of a larger margin of action whenever their activities remained limited to the humanitarian field. The “alternative schools” manifest the capability of new Palestinians activist to organize themselves and to manage the collective life in the camps facing the withdrawal of governmental and UNRWA institutions.
* Valentina Napolitano is a PhD student at the “Écoles des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS)” of Paris and Associate Professor at the “Institut d’études politiques (IEP)” of Aix-en-Provence. Her research focuses on political engagement and mobilization practices among the community of Palestinian refugees in Syria.

  1. Editorial Note: this article was submitted before ISIS invaded the camp.
  2. Located at 8 km south of the center of Damascus, al-Yarmouk Camp was created between 1954 and 1957 by Syrian authorities. This is why it is considered by UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Work Agency) as a “non-official” Camp and it was placed under the administration of the Damascus governorate. Before December of 2012 the number of al-Yarmouk residents amounted to 148500 Palestinians, representing the biggest Palestinian agglomerate in the country. It housed in addition to that an important number of Syrians. Al-Yarmouk’s total population in 2012 was estimated to be 250 000 persons.
  3. Part of al-Yarmouk’s residents escaped to other sections of the capital in order to protect themselves from the raging fights (Al-Qudsayya, Sahnaya, Mazzeh and Jaramana), while others escaped to neighbouring countries. According to UNRWA statistics, published in 2015, almost 280,000 Palestinians coming from different camps would be displaced towards the interior of Syria. In Jordan, the agency registered 15,000 Palestinians and 44,000 were registered in Lebanon while close to 4,000 residents went to Egypt.
  4. For more information about the siege see the report published Amnesty International “Squeezing the life out of al-Yarmouk. War Crimes Against Besieged Civilians”, March 2014, available at http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/MDE24/008/2014/en/c18cfe4d-1254-42f2-90df-e0fce7c762fc/mde240082014en.pdf
  5. The Dera’a Camp which was built between 1950 and 1951 harbored close to 10,000 Palestinians according to statistics published by UNRWA in 2010.
  6. Al-Ramle Al-Filastiniyyi camp constructed in 1955 counted more than 10,000 Palestinians according to statistics published by UNRWA in 2010.
  7. Al-‘Aidin camp constructed in 1949 counted close to 22,000 Palestinians according to UNRWA published statistics in 2010.
  8. Such camps were positioned at the heart of the urban peripheries of the respective cities where the first anti-regime protests were organized. It is this geographic proximity which explains why Palestinians of those camps were implicated early in the organizing of aid to wounded Syrians attained by regime repression. In addition, these camps were massively hit by military operations carried out by security services and Syrian army attacks which were trying to smother protests.
  9. On the 63th anniversary of the Nakba “a Walk of Return” (Masirat Al-‘Awda) was organized in the region bordering Golan Heights occupied by the Israeli army since 1967. This procession was organized in coordination with Palestinians in Lebanon, Jordan in addition to those of occupied territory who have also protested in the bordering zones to Israel, and tragically ended with the death of three Palestinians of the al-Yarmouk Camp who came under fire from the Israeli army. A second march was organized during the commemoration of Al-Naksa on the 5th June 2011 during which the previous Golan experience was repeated with a much higher toll of deaths where around 23 persons lost their lives. Next day, funerals were organized one more time in the al-Yarmouk camp where the 9 out of 23 dead came from. Slogans chanted denounced the instrumentalization of Palestinians by the Syrian regime and the FPLP-GC who encouraged the protests in the Golan Heights for political motifs linked to the crisis at hand. This second funeral procession ended therefore with an attack on the PFLP-GC bureau which was set to fire by the protesters. Clashes which occurred between the armed guards of Ahmad Jibril and the protesters caused at least 3 persons to be dead. About these protests see: Al-Hardaan, Anaheed (2012) “A Year on: The Palestinians in Syria”, Syrian Studies Association Bulletin, 17; Bitari, Nidal (2013) “Al-Yarmouk Refugee Camp and the Syrian Uprising: A View from Within”, Journal of Palestine Studies, (XLIII)1, autumn 2013, 62-78.
  10. Before the brooking up of the Syrian uprising many Palestinians political actors were based in al-Yarmouk, among whom the most important are Fatah (which was not officially represented), Hamas, Islamic Jihad, PFLP, DFLP, PFLP-CG and Fatah Al-Intifada. According to the respective positions adopted by these actors toward the events, local social and political organization created by them underwent a process of transformation. In the case of Hamas, which brook up its relationship with the Syrian regime, in February 2012, local militant engaged in organizing humanitarian help and lately in armed fighting. Some of Hamas’ social organizations with an independent status converted in humanitarian organizations. The Islamic Jihad, who did not openly sever its relationship with Syrian authorities, played a very active humanitarian role while avoiding becoming a target to violent repression. IJMP founded an organization, the “Humanitarian group for the Palestinian people”, which did not officially worked under the name of the movement itself but which at the popular scale was known as financed by it and was among the most active organizations in al-Yarmouk.
  11. Adam Baczko, Gilles Dorronsoro, and Arthur Quesnay, “Building a Syrian State in a Time of Civil War.”