Yarmouk Camp: a mosaic of support for Gaza

As Israel carried out its 23-day offensive in Gaza, Palestinians in refugee camps throughout the Arab world were not silent to the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza. Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria - home to some 130,000 residents - was no exception. MENASSAT dispatched reporter Hani Naim to see what Palestinian refugees in Syria had to say about Gaza in one of the underreported stories of the Gaza War.
Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Syria. © Hani Naim

SYRIA, JANUARY 20, 2009 (MENASSAT) - Yarmouk camp is located south of the Syrian capital and houses both “48 refugees” and “67 refugees” – those uprooted during the 1947-48 Palestinian Nakba (Catastrophe) and in the 1967 war.  

During the 23-day Israeli offensive on Gaza that ended over the weekend when both Israel and Hamas declared separate unilateral ceasefires, signs of solidarity filled the camp. Passers-by couldn't walk by a store without seeing a poster of Hamas or Gaza inside, while TV’s were constantly tuned to Al Jazeera or Hamas-affiliated Al-Aqsa TV.

Some storeowners even drew Israeli flags on the sidewalks outside their shops, for people to step on as they walked by.

To visitors, the camp resembles a miniature Palestine. Streets, schools, hospitals and basically everything else in Yarmouth are named after the Arab cities and villages of pre-1948 Palestine.

More than 700,000 Palestinians were uprooted from their homeland, during the formation of the Israeli state in 1948, while 531 villages were razed to the ground and 11 urban neighborhoods were emptied of their inhabitants.
Ironically, many of the new Hebrew names for the lost villages or renamed towns are all given recognition in Yarmouk – names such as Haifa, Jaffa, Jerusalem, al-Mansourah, Kfar Qassem, Deir Yassin and Tabariya.

At the entrance of Yarmouk, the Shahabi family, one of the largest and most powerful families in the camp, hung a huge banner that read “Koulna Hamas” (“We are all Hamas”). It was a campaign initiated by the camp's political parties to show their support for Gaza.

All of the parties were represented during three weeks of Gaza solidarity actions. Posters hang of Hamas members, who were killed by the Israelis during the three weeks of bombing, such as senior Hamas leader and cleric Nizar Rayan and police chief Toufic Jaber, while the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine had a poster up, which Fatah also signed: “Unity + resistance = victory… A salute to our people resisting in Gaza.”

A feeling of helplessness

During Operation Cast Lead, Yarmouk’s youth were spearheading most of the camps Gaza-solidarity protests.

Many told MENASSAT that they were proud to be demonstrating, but found it hard to shake-off a strong feeling of helplessness at the situation.

“Any Arab has this feeling when faced with these massacres,” said university student Mohammad Mawaad.

The 24-year-old added.  “But the least we could do was participate in one of the demonstrations.”

Yarmouk’s youth protesters followed the demonstrations in Beirut, Amman and Cairo. They said they were especially excited when given an opportunity to clash with the Syrian police. It allowed them to, as some kids in the camp told MENASSAT, “Release their anger” against a regime that does not take too kindly to protest.

Twenty-eight year old student Rania Al-Jashi also said she felt powerless during the Gaza war.

Now everyone is suffering from “major depression,” she said, “Sending money is and was not enough.”

And as the Gaza ceasefire was taking affect over the weekend, the children in Yarmouk asked their parents if the demonstrations they participated in made any difference.

Employer Hassan Ammourah, 23, was one camp resident that didn’t attend the demonstrations because he was not supportive of Hamas’ rule of Gaza and because he didn’t support their role as the main representative of Palestinian resistance. “I didn’t want to clash with Hamas supporters,” he said in reference to previous Gaza solidarity demonstrations.

Fatima Abu Kharaj, manager of Al-Jil Al-Jadid (The New Generation) in Yarmouk’s Palestinian Cultural Center, laughed when asked about the demonstrations that took place throughout the Arab world. “Of what use were they really?”

In keeping with other Gaza solidarity efforts, youth in Yarmouk expressed their support through social networking Internet sites, such as Facebook, MySpace and Hi5.

But Milhem Najma, 24, told MENASSAT, “I didn’t feel I personally got my message across.”

“I found it difficult to persuade my western friends of what was really happening in Gaza, because of the media blackout and twisting of facts” that characterized western media coverage, he said.

From Yarmouk to Gaza

Many of Yarmouk’s inhabitants said they have family and friends in Gaza, but communication between them was predictably difficult during the three-week offensive.
Mohammad Mawaad said he had not heard from his friends in Gaza since the fifth day of the offensive. “Today I know nothing about them,” he said, a few days before the ceasefire was declared.

Mohammad Saidi, 14, said he used to talk to his cousins in the demolished Jabaliya area in Gaza. “We would call them just to hear, ‘We are fine’ before hanging up,” she said, “because Israeli soldiers were often right outside their home.”

The children of Yarmouk: to Hamas and Fatah, stop your stupidity

Meanwhile, for Yarmouk’s children the mental scars will run deep. Seeing the death and destruction in Gaza, young Mohammad al-Saidi asked, “Why are the children in Gaza dying like this? What have they done to deserve this?”

And while Yarmouk’s youth were critical of Israel, they were also critical of the Palestinian leadership for what they said were the roles they played in sewing the seeds to war in Gaza.

Deep divisions between the two ruling parties in Palestinian Territories, Hamas and Fatah, were exposed after Hamas won parliamentary elections in 2006. These divisions which were widened when Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah in the summer of 2007.

Still, Shahed Khalil, 12, described the division between Hamas and Fatah as “stupid and ignorant” and counteractive to Palestinian national aspirations.

Mohammad Saidi, 14, agreed with Khalil and told MENASSAT that he wanted the leaders of both parties to “stop and think for a second" about how to mend the internal divisions, which were easily exploited by Israel and the west, he said.

As for the Arab summits in Doha and Kuwait over the weekend, “They were a waste of time,” Khalil said.

“We have all lost hope with the Arab regimes ability to act on the matter of the Palestinian cause.”

With much of the Arab street directing their anger at Egypt and the government of Hosni Mubarak, Khalil and his friends in the camp had one question for the Egyptian president: “What did you have to lose if you opened the Rafah border crossing with Gaza?” they asked in reference to Egypt’s compliance with Israel in keeping Gaza’s borders closed during the War.

Cultural resistance

In the end, Yarmouk’s Gaza-solidarity actions also found cultural expression as a means of getting the message out about the Palestinian Diaspora’s reaction to Gaza.

Refugees for Rap (RfR), a hip-hop group formed four years ago in Yarmouk, filtered their message through music and strong lyrics.

During the final days of “Operation Cast Lead,” the band composed a song about Palestinian unity called, “From the heart of the refugees to Gaza,” petitioning every Palestinian to say “I’m Palestinian,” rather than, “I’m with Hamas,”  “I’m with Fatah,” or “I’m with the Palestinian Front.”

21-year old Yasser Jamous, a co-founder of RfR, said they performed the song live in the camp for the first time on January 19.

“Sada al-Shatat” ("The echo of the Diaspora”), a non-political cultural organization lead several demonstrations during the three-week Gaza operation - including an ongoing sit-in in front of al-Wassim mosque, a small bazaar and a demonstration in the Business School in Damascus University.