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Yarmouk's Palestinians in crossfire as ISIS, al-Nusra vie for control

April 15, 2016 1:08 P.M. (Updated: April 16, 2016 6:10 P.M.)
A street in Yarmouk refugee camp in the Syrian capital Damascus in 2013. (AFP/Anwar Amro, File)
By: Emily Mulder

BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Fighting between the Islamic State group (IS) and al-Nusra Front in Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus has left thousands of Palestinians trapped in their homes, in the latest crisis to strike what was once Syria's largest Palestinian refugee camp.

The Jafra Foundation, a Yarmouk-based humanitarian organization, said Wednesday that deadly clashes erupted on April 7 and continued through the week, accompanied by heavy shelling from Syrian regime forces as well as armed Palestinian groups.

At least four civilians have been killed -- including two who were beheaded by IS fighters -- and another five civilians, including children, were wounded by sniper fire, the organization said. Some 20 buildings were also burned Tuesday, including a hospital.

IS forces have taken over the majority of Yarmouk, besieging the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front in certain areas in a struggle that has carved up the camp. Some 2,500 Palestinian families have been trapped inside their homes due to the fighting, without food or water.

Yarmouk used to be home to nearly 200,000 people, the majority Palestinian refugees, but after two years of a Syrian regime siege, followed by the incursion of IS into the camp, the vast majority were forced to flee. The Jafra Foundation estimates some 5,000 to 8,000 residents remain.

The regime's siege and deadly fighting has forced Yarmouk residents to rely entirely on humanitarian aid, but fighting has made aid delivery nearly impossible over the past three years.

Aid groups in February gained access to areas of Damascus neighboring the camp, with Yarmouk residents managing to receive aid by travelling to the suburb of Yalda, as well as Babila and Beit Saham.

However, IS has held control of the checkpoint leading from Yarmouk to Yalda since April 7, and the Jafra Foundation reported that no civilians have been able to exit the camp since.

Water has been cut off from the majority of the camp as a result of the week's fighting and residents say any available water is contaminated, infecting many with hepatitis or typhoid. Due to access restrictions, medics in the camp have been unable to remove bodies of those killed in clashes from the streets.

IS forces initially gained a footing in the camp in April last year with the assistance of al-Nusra Front, but the extremist group is now pitted against al-Nusra as well as armed Palestinian groups inside the camp.

The Jafra Foundation reported that IS and al-Nusra have not been damaged by the government's ongoing siege on the camp, with both groups maintaining a supply of provisions and weapons.

Yarmouk's residents have called on the PLO, Palestinian factions, and the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) to take responsibility for their dire situation.

In the West Bank, PLO Secretary-General Saeb Erekat on Thursday demanded that the international community provide protection to Palestinians in Yarmouk, saying that IS and al-Nusra were "exterminating innocent civilians."

He extended his condolences for the deaths of three Palestinians killed in the recent fighting, identified as Muhammad Amairi, Ahmad Hamdan, and Muhammad Ali.

"The solution is not in taking Palestinian refugees into European or other countries or new refugee camps, but in bringing them back to their home country that they were forcefully displaced from in 1948," he said, a proposal rejected by the Israeli authorities.

Erekat said Palestinians are "still paying the price of (the Israeli) occupation and conflict wherever they are."

The Syrian conflict began in the form of peaceful protests in March 2011 and quickly morphed into a civil war, leaving more than 300,000 people dead and millions displaced since.

Over half a million Palestinians lived across nine refugee camps prior to the war, the descendants of the some 750,000 Palestinians expelled from their homes during the establishment of Israel. Syria's civil war has seen many of these families displaced a second time, and around 50,000 Palestinians have fled the country.

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