On the night of March 8, 1963, the leaders of the Syrian Baath Party met at my great grandfather’s house on Ain Ghazal Street, Ally 4, in Yarmouk Camp, the refugee quarter, in Damascus. Among them were Michel Aflaq, Salah Jadid, Salah al-Din al-Bitar, my great uncle Mahmoud Azzam, and the future president of Syria, Hafez al-Assad. Later that day, they launched the revolution that began 60 years of Baath rule that I, and many others, opposed for years to come and that eventually resulted in the 2011 revolution.
The story of Yarmouk Camp, where I was born and raised, is in many ways the story of Palestinian politics in Syria and the region. My family was witness to the camp’s rise and fall for decades. In fact, al-Assad’s own relationship with the Yarmouk camp and its notables had grown through his frequent visits to my great uncle and grandfather. The camp was also the starting point for his long, tortuous relationship with the factions of the Palestinian movement.
Yarmouk camp was established in 1957 in Damascus as one of 12 camps that came to host the Palestinian refugee population across Syria. Yarmouk became the largest camp for Palestinian refugees in the Middle East as well as the headquarters for the various Palestinian factions for decades.
In 1966, Yusef Orabi, a close friend to Hafez al-Assad and a Baathist officer in the Palestine Liberation Army, was killed while an argument between rival Palestinian factions turned violent and resulted in the shooting death of Orabi and another officer. The regime carried out multiple arrests in the camp targeting the leaders of the Palestinian nationalist movements Yasser Arafat, Khalil al-Wazir, and Ahmed Jibril, along with Fatah member and security guard Abdel-Majid Zaghmout. This incident in the camp may have set the scene for the turbulent relationship between Syria and the Palestinians.
Arafat was eventually released, but Zaghmout remained in prison for 34 years until his death in 2000. The arrest of the “leadership of the Palestinian revolution” as it is known in the history of Fatah, almost destroyed the Fatah movement, and Arafat would not forget this humiliating detention at the Baath regime’s hands. Hatred between al-Assad and Arafat prompted al-Assad to turn against Fatah in Syria and support other Palestinian factions, especially the Popular Front-General Command PFLP-GC, forever changing Palestinian politics in Syria.
In 1967 came what Arabs call the Naksa, or Setback, in which Israel decimated several Arab armies and captured massive territory from Egypt and Syria. People lost confidence in Arab armies’ ability to confront Israel, thus paving the way for the rising Palestinian militant factions to carry out operations inside Israel. The popularity of the Palestinian factions increased specifically after the Battle of Karameh in 1968. That of Fatah and Arafat, who was elected Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1969, increased even more.
Palestinian camps, especially Yarmouk Camp, became the main grounds for the Palestinian political and military movement. The end of the 1960s witnessed the formation of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine PFLP and the Democratic Front for Liberating Palestine DFLP, both leftist groups. Together with Fatah, they formed the social and political backbone of the Palestinian cause in the refugee camps and provided great support to the leftist movement in Syria, especially the Communist Labor League in the 1970s. Whereas the Popular Front-General Command PFLP-GC had won the approval of the Syrian regime and its intelligence services, as well as the Libyan regime, Fatah’s relationship with the Syrian regime fluctuated between bad and very bad.
In 1983, tensions between the Syrian regime and the Arafat-led Palestinian Liberation Organization came to a head again. As a result of this tension, al-Assad fomented infighting in Fatah, which Arafat also led, which had a profound impact on the unity of the Palestinian Liberation Organization for decades. Demonstrations took place in Yarmouk Camp against al-Assad, chanting, “A lion, a lion in Lebanon; a mouse, a mouse in the Golan,” referring to al-Assad’s militant stance against Israel in Lebanon compared with his passivity in the occupied Golan Heights.
This was not the first time that the Palestinians in Yarmouk Camp demonstrated against al-Assad and shouted this slogan, but the Baath Party and al-Assad had reached their limit. At a meeting in the National Command of the Baath Party, some Baathist members suggested that Yarmouk Camp and its residents be punished with an artillery bombardment. This proposal angered the Palestinian Baathists, who instead promised al-Assad: “We will form a delegation of senior men in the camp to visit you and turn this page forever.”
A delegation from the local leadership of Yarmouk Camp visited al-Assad, who told them: “If Qardaha (his hometown) had gone out with these demonstrations and chants, I would have bombed them with air raids, but I will not bomb the camp.” Al-Assad did not bomb the camp, but he started a war against the remnants of the Fatah movement in the camps in Lebanon, known as the War of the Camps in the history of the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted between 1985 and 1988. This war saw al-Assad bring together the Lebanese Amal Movement (a Shiite militia established during the Lebanese Civil War), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command PFLP-GC, and pro-Syrian Fatah al-Intifada — known as the dissident Fatah faction — to enforce a policy of starving the camps into submission.
Al-Assad had damaged the Palestinian social fabric to the point that Palestinians were killing even family and friends, knowingly and unknowingly, in Lebanon’s vicious wars.
For Palestinians in general, belonging to a faction is a determinant of their Palestinian identity, especially in refugee camps. It is natural for one family to include affiliations with a wide spectrum of Palestinian factions from the far-right to the far-left, and whoever has no formal affiliation is likely to be inclined, even intellectually, to belong to one of the factions. The diaspora’s affiliation is embracing a Palestinian national identity.
Most of my extended family were opposed to the Baathists. My father’s younger brother belonged to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine PFLP led by the leftist Arab nationalist George Habash. The Popular Front opposed the War of the Camps, and its members fought in support of the Palestinian camps in Lebanon against the Amal Movement. I remember that he used to go away for months, then return to spend a few days with my grandmother and grandfather then return to Lebanon. We used to feel the security services roaming around our house, and sometimes there were attempts to set up ambushes and arrest him.
In addition to my uncle, who was in the Popular Front, my maternal uncle was on his mandatory service in the Palestine Liberation Army. My paternal and maternal uncles were very close friends, and they agreed on all political issues, except that they were fighting on two different fronts in Lebanon, and it was very possible for one of them to unknowingly kill the other. In Lebanon it was very possible for a man to accidentally kill his brother. The scene in the 1980s in the Palestinian refugee camps was surreal.
The mourners did not know the names of the martyrs.
My paternal grandmother used to take care of me when my parents went to work, and my maternal grandmother worked as a teacher in a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian Refugees school in Yarmouk Camp. The convoys of martyrs coming from Lebanon never stopped, and hardly a day went by without a funeral. It was often the general tradition that a brass band would lead the funeral procession, and as soon as my paternal grandmother heard the band, she would pull me by the hand and run barefoot towards the main street of Yarmouk Camp. Sometimes, the mourners did not know the names of the martyrs, so my grandmother would walk in the funeral asking the mourners and passersby for the names of the martyrs, fearing that her youngest son was among them. She would walk, firmly pulling me, until she saw my maternal grandmother, who left her classroom in the school and went asking the mourners if the martyrs were from the Palestinian Liberation Army or from other factions.
I remember her standing at the corner of the intersection, her hand on her cheek, and as soon as she saw me with my paternal grandmother, she would embrace me and say to my grandmother, “Praise be to God, our children are not among them. May God help the families (of the martyrs).” Years of oppression, pain, and many dead and wounded meant that almost no house in the Yarmouk camp was without a martyr, detainee, captive, missing, or wounded member. This is why the Yarmouk camp begins with a street called the Fedayeen (those who sacrifice themselves) Quarter — and ends with Al Shuhadaa cemetery (the cemetery of martyrs). In any case, in the end, my paternal uncle’s fate was to lose his right hand in the War of the Camps.
It was not long after the war ended in Lebanon and following the Taif Agreement that the Palestinians in Kuwait suffered the misfortune of their deportation after the first Gulf War, Desert Storm. Kuwait was a haven for Palestinians after the Nakba, as the then-nascent state provided them with a place where refugees could build a new life for themselves. Once again, my family feared that my uncle, who had spent his life in Kuwait since 1978, would be expelled from there. More than 750,000 Palestinians were expelled when Arafat decided to support the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. At the time, my uncle came to Damascus with his family, and it would be the first and last time that I met him face-to-face before he returned with a few hundred Palestinians that Kuwait allowed to return.
With Oslo, the way and nature of Palestinian life in Syria changed. The Palestinian Liberation Organization signed the Declaration of Principles agreement, known as the Oslo Accord in 1993, and it was no longer necessary for it to fight its wars from the neighboring Arab countries or what is known in the literature of the Arab-Israeli conflict as “neighboring countries.” The Palestinians now had a piece of land that might one day be a state bearing the name Palestine. With the end of the wars from behind the borders, the camps in Syria and Lebanon breathed a sigh of relief.
The impact of the Oslo Accord in 1993 and 1995 on a generation of Palestinian children born in the mid-to-late 1980s in Syria was remarkable. This generation was the first Palestinian generation to grow up without the shadow of continuous wars and funerals that lasted for decades. They could grow up during a period of calm, which the Palestinians in the camps in Syria and Lebanon experienced, that lasted throughout the 1990s.
Then came the Islamization of the Palestinian cause through Hamas, in part thanks to the Assad regime.
Hamas moved from Jordan to Syria following the Israeli assassination attempt on Khaled Meshaal in Jordan in 1998. With Bashar al-Assad assuming power after his father’s death in 2000, he is rumored to have said that Meshaal was his guest, and that insulting him was an insult to the Syrian presidency.
I do not know if this rumor is true, but I do know that the support Hamas received in Syria exceeded that of any other Palestinian faction in history, and many in Damascus noticed that. Hamas entered the Palestinian camps, establishing multiple offices and service projects, such as medical clinics and humanitarian aid offices for the poor refugees and others. With the expansion of the Hamas movement, the rapid escalation of Islamization of Syrian society in general and of the Palestinian refugee communities in particular began.
Hamas and the Islamic Jihad created a new rift in the refugee camps and the Palestinian cause, as both movements mainly relied on Gaza-based leadership, while the refugees did not have leadership positions in the two movements. I felt this rift while working on my master’s in political sociology at Damascus University after my interviews with the leaders of the two factions and their cadres. The presence of the two movements in Syria, with large numbers of their cadres, showed a great difference in cultural and social values, and even a great difference between the Palestinian refugee communities in Syria and Gaza.
In any case, Palestinian refugees began to get restless with those factions that no longer played any role in the camps. Palestinian factions in general became less popular and the culture of civil society institutions became widespread. I remember that the first independent civil youth organization was established in 2005 in the Yarmouk camp under the name Jafra Foundation. By contrast, outside of the camps, civil movements began to dwindle sharply in Syria. Cultural forums were closed, the Damascus Spring, and the work of civil society revival committees ended. The security services launched arrest campaigns against university students for their participation in civil society initiatives or political activity and for their political views. I am certain that the civil movement in Syria between 2000 and 2008, in particular, was a prelude to the Syrian revolution that broke out in 2011 and made it inevitable.
It was natural for the Yarmouk camp to be involved in the Syrian revolution from its inception. The regime, its security institutions, and lackeys from the Palestinian factions did not allow Palestinian refugee camps in Syria to remain neutral.
On March 25, 2011, Buthaina Shaaban, al-Assad’s media adviser, accused the Palestinian refugees in the coastal city of Latakia of being behind, what she called, riots there, saying there was a plot hatched to stir up sectarian strife in Syria. And in May 2011, Rami Makhlouf, a Syrian businessman and al-Assad’s cousin, announced that Israel will not be stable unless Syria is. And so, the Syrian security forces opened the way for Palestinian refugees to carry out “return marches” toward the border area of the occupied Golan Heights, which were coordinated with the Palestinian factions and the Lebanese Hezbollah.
The second such march saw the Israeli military kill 21 Palestinian refugee men and women, and three Syrians, and wound more than 200. On that day, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), whom I was working for at the time, withdrew, and the Palestinian factions’ leaders who were present on that day refused to use their cars to aide those shot by the Israelis. My friend, a volunteer for SARC, had a pickup truck that he used to transport the injured to Mamdouh Abaza Hospital in Quneitra. I helped him and transported five dead bodies.
On June 6 — the next day — the entire Yarmouk camp came out to the victims’ funeral. The number of mourners was very high, and I certainly believe it exceeded 30,000 mourners, and they began to chant against all Palestinian factions. The Palestinian community in Syria interpreted the events of the two marches of return to indicate that the Palestinian factions enabled the Syrian regime to exploit the Palestinian refugee card at all levels: politically and militarily, internally and externally. These factions reinforced their role as a submissive tool at the hands of the Syrian regime and its allies, especially Iran and Hezbollah, at that early stage in mid-2011.
My mother and two sisters stood on the sidewalk as the funeral-demonstration proceeded through the main Yarmouk Street, while I walked with my younger brother. After 30 years, the Yarmouk camp once again shouted, “A lion, a lion in Lebanon. A mouse, a mouse in the Golan.” As my mother tried in vain to get me out of the demonstration, the voices of the demonstrators grew louder with this chanting as mourners approached the new Yarmouk cemetery, where the martyrs were supposed to be buried. A primary school physical education teacher interrupted the chanting screaming: “You are crazy, they will destroy the camp on our heads, your heads, on the heads of our daughters, our wives, and our children.” His face was red from intense anger and fear.
The generation gap was evident at that moment. Many of those in their 60s had experienced the brutality of the regime during the events of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hamah and Aleppo, while younger people who were in their late 40s and early 50s felt that they were able to avenge themselves from the years of oppression and arrests that befell them or their friends. For the youngest generation that was then in their 20s and early 30s, this was the moment of liberation from authority, the moment when the barrier of fear established by the regime since I was born collapsed, the barrier that had started to rise higher and higher as I grew up in the shadow of the Baath Party. The Baath motto is “Unity, Liberty, Socialism.” I had no problem with the calls for unity and socialism, but the twisted claim to liberty in the motto was suffocating me.
At school, while chanting the slogan, I felt like my veins were about to explode when I was screaming “freedom.” In that demonstration, I realized I was screaming the word freedom from the bottom of my heart because I longed for it: I craved it. I also realized that Palestine was nothing but the bridle that the regime had covered our mouths with for 30 years of my life. I chanted a lot, and that barrier collapsed, the veil was pulled back. We shouted: “A lion, a lion in Lebanon, a mouse, a mouse in the Golan” — it was a demonstration, a funeral, and a celebration.
At that time, the revolution was in its infancy, and we were seeing the brutality of the regime, but we did not know yet that the worst was yet to come. It was not long before the regime turned the revolution into a massacre in which it used all the killing machines at its disposal. The massacre engulfed Yarmouk Camp, too, making it the worst place in Syria.
The camp had changed a lot since 1957. Development had expanded it greatly, and Yarmouk Camp hosted three markets that were among the largest in Syria. Palestinian refugees were a minority in this camp, which was inhabited before the revolution by about 160,000 Palestinian refugees and more than 800,000 Syrians from various Syrian governorates and different sects.
The Palestinian refugees in the camps were not at fault as the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Palestinian factions had disappointed them. History repeated itself again, and the Syrian Army, backed by the Popular Front-General Command and other Palestinian factions, besieged Yarmouk Camp, just as it did during the War of the Camps in Lebanon.
The situation worsened because, contrary to all expectations, the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Fatah movement took a stance of de facto support of the Syrian regime under the pretext of neutrality, in exchange for Fatah getting back the properties that the Syrian regime confiscated when al-Assad worked to split Fatah in 1983.
As for Hamas, it left Syria in March 2011 with the beginning of the revolution and participated in the arming and training of the Free Army, also contrary to all expectations and speculations. Currently, however, it is working to rebuild bridges with the Syrian regime as if nothing had happened.
Yarmouk Camp was besieged for nearly 2,000 days, during which more than 200 children, men, and women died of starvation. Many of those who remained in the camp tried to crawl on their stomachs to avoid the sniper bullets in desperate attempts to reach the grass to pick and eat. UNRWA could not reach the trapped, and the sheikhs in mosques declared from their pulpits that slaughtering cats and dogs, if they were to be found, for the purpose of eating is permissible. Yarmouk Camp had become the worst place on the planet.
During the Lebanon War in the Battle of Sultan Yacoub in 1982, 30 Israeli soldiers were killed, and it was rumored at that time that Fatah had seized two bodies for negotiation and buried them in the martyrs’ cemetery in Yarmouk Camp. In yet another chapter in the camp’s central place in regional conflict, I remember that in 2006 we started receiving calls on landlines with a recorded message stating, as far as I recollect, “If you have information about captured Israeli soldiers, tell us and you will receive a monetary award.”
One of my friends who remained in the Yarmouk camp told me that in 2014, the Mossad was able to contact some activists there to start searching for the remains of the two Israeli soldiers. And in May 2018, Russian officers met with representatives of the Yarmouk Camp, and agreed an evacuation process for more than 5,000 Palestinian refugees to leave the camp for Idlib. In return, the Russian authorities in Syria would be given the locations and coordinates of the two Israeli soldiers’ graves.
Russia sent the remains of 10 bodies from the martyrs’ cemetery in the Yarmouk camp, and the Israeli government conducted a DNA test and found that the remains of one of them belonged to the missing soldier Zakharia Baumel.
Zakharia was buried in a proper grave, whereas there is no news of the other nine bodies that were exhumed from the graves. Russia continues to this day to desecrate Palestinian graves in search of the remains of Israelis.
The camp was not spared from the war with the Islamic State group (ISIS) either. Following the agreement to evacuate the southern region, Russia destroyed Yarmouk Camp with MiG planes, with the supposed aim of eliminating ISIS members who remained in the camp, and who, with their families, numbered 150. The Russian warplanes obliterated the place, and then an exit agreement was executed in 2015 with ISIS members, who went to the Lajat desert in Suwayda, in what was known as the Operation of Yarmouk Camp’s Liberation.
My father came back to inspect his house that we had grown up in, a four-story building, in which we owned the last two floors and shops on the first floor, on a beautiful street called 15th Street. He entered the camp through its southern gate and had to walk almost 2 miles to reach the street where our house was located. My father could not recognize the street, so he started asking about Hamdan Bakery, for which there was also no trace. After asking many people, one of them was able to find the street.
My father related his return: “It was difficult to walk, so I had to find a piece of iron to help me climb the rubble in order to get to our house. I walked a lot, went up and down mountains of rubble, and could not find the house. Our neighbor, the barber, saw me, and he sent greetings to you and your brother. Then he asked me what I was doing on the street, and I told him that I was looking for our house and it seemed it is difficult to recognize it due to the extent of damage. He put his hand on my shoulder and pointed to a pile of rubble and told me this is your house.
I looked at the struggle of 50 of my 70 years of life and saw it destroyed on the ground. I laughed a lot.
“The four stories were entirely destroyed, burned to the ground. I looked at the struggle of 50 of my 70 years of life and saw it destroyed on the ground. I laughed a lot and said, ‘Praise be to God, that my children are all well.’ I turned my back and walked away knowing that I would never return.”
My father, who was born in Palestine in 1947 and exiled in 1948 to the life of a refugee, told me this story from another refuge, this time Berlin, Germany. I understand that all of Syria is destroyed anyway, and our house is no more important than other homes. But I felt more helpless than sad. My father needed to lean on someone on reaching his home, and none of us — his sons and daughters — were there for him to lean on; rather he relied on a piece of iron from the remnants of his home.
Do I regret my participation in the uprising? No. If I went back in time and I was put in the same position again, I would change nothing. I would chant those slogans once again, knowing that Yarmouk Camp was, once again and for the last time, bearing witness to another chapter of the Palestinian story.