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Yarmouk is moving from being a refugee camp to a Damascus neighbourhood

July 16, 2020 at 11:00 am

Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria in 2014 [Laila Ben Allal/Middle East Monitor]

In April 2018, Syrian regime forces and those Palestinian factions allied with them used Russian air cover to launch a military assault on Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp and the neighbouring Al-Hajar Al-Aswad district, with the stated aim of expelling Daesh. After 33 days of fighting, Daesh members and their families left southern Damascus and headed for the Sweida Desert, in accordance with a mysterious deal sponsored by Russia. The fighting destroyed or damaged about 80 per cent of the camp’s buildings, and killed many civilians; some bodies are still believed to be under the rubble.

According to a survey by the UN Training and Research Agency (UNITAR) in March last year, Yarmouk camp, with an area less than 2.11 sq km, was ranked seventh on the list of the most destroyed areas in Syria. The residents have not yet been allowed to return to their homes, on the pretext that the rubble removal has not been finished and the need to make sure that the houses are safe from the mines laid by Daesh. Basic services must also be restored. Nevertheless, residents were allowed to check their property and belongings on quick visits to the camp after obtaining security permits. Looters haven’t faced such obstacles, and have had plenty of time to go over the buildings and their contents.

Statements about the fate of the camp and plans to rehabilitate it have been mixed, with 160,000 Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA waiting to know the fate of their camp and their property. With silence from the official Syrian authorities, Palestinian community leaders have announced many times that reconstruction of the camp was going to happen, and denied the existence of plans to change the geography and demographics. After UNRWA announced that it was awaiting the decision of the Syrian government regarding reconstructing the Yarmouk camp and whether the regime would allow the Palestinian residents to return or not, in December 2018 Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Al-Miqdad was forced to declare that the Syrian government did not mind the Palestinians going back to Yarmouk. He added that there was a plan to organise their return, although the time frame for this was not specified.

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A few people have since returned to their homes in some of the camp’s least damaged area. This move was accompanied by occasional activity by pro-government Syrian and Palestinian parties, which the government media have been keen to portray as a victory for the will of the people over Daesh terrorism.

The fears of the Palestinians displaced from Yarmouk camp had increased after the issuance of Law No. 10 on 4 April 2018 (an amendment to Decree 66 issued in 2012), aiming to recreate redevelopment zones at random within the Damascus governorate. The Palestinian factions and officials tried to reassure the Yarmouk residents that the Syrian political and security leaders had assured them that the camp will not be part of the reorganisation of Damascus; and that it would be re-established within a short period of time.

However, the Syrian Council of Ministers decided, in early July 2018, to refute such reassurances and tasked the Ministry of Public Works and Housing to complete new organisational plans for the areas of Jobar, Barzeh, Qaboun and Yarmouk camp, as part of the government’s plan to revive areas liberated from “terrorism”.

Large crowds of refugees are seen in Yarmouk refugee camp [file photo]

Large crowds of refugees are seen in Yarmouk refugee camp [File photo]

Previous attempts to include the camp within the organisational scope of what is known as “Greater Damascus Governorate” failed due to the administrative independence granted to the camp by the Syrian Cabinet in 1964, in accordance with which the camp became an independent administrative unit affiliated with the Ministry of Local Administration, managed by the local committee of the Yarmouk camp. This was headed by a Palestinian appointed by the General Authority for Palestinian Arab Refugees, in partnership with the country leadership of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party (Palestinian branch), along with a municipal council composed of figures from the camp.

In order to remove the administrative and legal obstacles that prevented the inclusion of the camp within the plans for the Damascus Governorate, the Cabinet said in November 2018 that the governorate of Damascus must replace the local committee of the Yarmouk camp, including its rights and duties, and that committee members must be put at the disposal of the governorate. The argument was that the preparation for the camp’s reconstruction phase, and the capabilities it needed, were not available to the local committee of Yarmouk camp. Actually, though, the decision was a coup against the 1964 decision in preparation for putting the camp at the disposal of the governorate, under the heavy shadow of Law No. 10, which means removing the camp as a place where planning regulations have been violated and creating a new organisational zone.

In September last year, a member of the governorate’s executive committee, Samir Jazaerili, revealed the evaluation of the organisational plan for the Yarmouk camp, noting that Law No. 10 will not apply to the old part of the camp (between Yarmouk and Palestine streets, from the Helwa Zaidan centre to the old Mohammed V Health Centre, associated with UNRWA), thus preventing it from being considered a reconstruction area, because the land, legally, is the property of the Palestine Refugee Foundation, and only those living in the camp can build there. As for the properties built in the camp illegally, if they have been destroyed by the fighting, they will not be allowed to be rebuilt and the normal planning rules will apply.

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The former head of the Council of Ministers, Imad Khamis, put an end to the debate which had been ongoing since the day Daesh left the camp, of whether the organisational plans would end Yarmouk’s status as a Palestinian refugee camp, when he announced last October that the organisational plan for Yarmouk and Qaboun would be announced in January this year. While this deadline has passed, the details of this plan remained unclear until June, when the governorate committee agreed at an extraordinary session to announce the detailed organisational plan number 105 for the areas of Yarmouk and Qaboun. They also agreed to present the plans to the citizens for 30 days in order for them to prove their ownership and submit their objections.

The plan divides the camp into three areas, categorised according to the degree of damage (high, medium and light); comprehensive and radical reorganisation will take place in the “high damage” areas, which includes central and more crowded neighbourhoods and streets, while the residents of the light damage areas, which amount to 40 per cent of the total camp population, will be allowed to return to their homes. Thus, the plan leaves the fate of the property of 60 per cent of the camp’s residents vulnerable to expropriation by the governorate. Compensation to those who can prove ownership will be offered in small amounts without any compensation for those who built in violation of planning laws.

The announcement of the organisational plan revealed the responsibility of the Palestinian factions for deluding the Palestinian refugees and their use as a puppet in Syrian politics. If implemented, the plan will have negative effects on the issue of the Palestinian refugees and their right to return, with even worse economic conditions, as they are the group most affected by the collapse of the Syrian economy; more than 90 per cent of the families live in absolute poverty. It will also undermine the symbolism of Yarmouk as a witness to the Nakba, and erase it from the Palestinian refugee map, as it will be redefined as a Damascus neighbourhood. It has become linked to the future of the political system in Syria.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.