Occupied: Headlines From Palestine

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PLO: Islamic State Using Heavy Arms In Yarmouk Camp

BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) — The Islamic State militant group in Syria is using heavy weaponry and artillery in ongoing fighting in the beleaguered Yarmouk refugee camp, a PLO official said Sunday.

Ahmad al-Majdalani, the PLO envoy to Syria, told Ma’an that despite heavy fighting with the Syrian army IS have maintained their positions in the camp and have redeployed to arrange future attacks.

“Political solutions regarding the Yarmouk crisis are over as IS has closed all doors on any political solution and is currently gathering its forces in the Yalda area in Syria in preparation to attack the camp,” the official said.

Al-Majdalani, who returned from Syria at the weekend, will meet with President Abbas upon his return from Moscow to discuss the crisis.

Pierre Krahenbuhl, who heads the UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA, on Monday called on all sides to respect the beleaguered civilians trapped inside Yarmouk.

“The Syria conflict has a human face. These are individuals with a dignity and destiny that must be at the center of our responses as we grapple with the complexities of protecting civilians, in Yarmouk and beyond.”

Yarmouk, which is Syria’s largest refugee camp lying seven kilometers south of Damascus, was initially attacked by IS on April 1, and the group subsequently took over the majority of the camp.

Although hundreds of residents have been evacuated, up to 18,000 residents remain trapped inside the camp, which has been besieged by the Syrian army for more than a year.

The camp was once home to 160,000 people, Syrians as well as Palestinians, but its population has dwindled since the uprising erupted in March 2011.

Although the PLO has publicly rejected Palestinian involvement in a military campaign, citing a longstanding policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of Arab nations, on Saturday Majdalani said the situation was out of the hands of the Palestinian leadership.

He told Ma’an that the resort to military action had been imposed on Palestinian groups inside the camp.

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Palestinian National Council Head Calls For Quicker Response To Yarmouk Crisis

AMMAN (Ma’an) — The head of the Palestinian National Council, Salim Zanoun, has called on the Palestinian leadership to speed up efforts to resolve the ongoing Yarmouk crisis.

Zanoun said that residents of the beleaguered refugee camp don’t need discussion, but political and material support.

His comments were directed at the PNC’s executive committee, the highest executive body of the PLO, which is composed of 18 members. The executive committee is elected by the much larger PNC, which has nearly 700 members.

Zanoun made his comment as he met with PNC members in Amman to discuss the crisis in Syria, among other issues.

He called on PNC members across the occupied Palestinian Territories to donate to residents of Yarmouk camp, saying it was “a national duty.”

A one-week period has been set in which to raise donations, and Zanoun added that the council had so far raised 13,150 Jordanian Dinars ($18,600).

On Saturday, two senior UN officials were headed Saturday for Syria on an “urgent mission” to aid the thousands of civilians that remain trapped in Yarmouk.

Pierre Krahenbuhl, who heads the UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA, is meeting Syrian officials to discuss the delivery of aid to the camp which has been stormed by Islamic State group militants.

He is also due to meet displaced refugees on Sunday at a school near the camp.

Also in Damascus, the UNRWA chief is to meet deputy special envoy Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy, sent on Friday by UN chief Ban Ki-moon who has warned of a “massacre” in the camp.

The visit is “prompted by UNRWA’s deepening concerns for the safety and protection of some 18,000 Palestinian and Syrian civilians, including 3,500 children” still in the camp, the agency said in a statement.

Refuge in schools

According to Palestinian sources, some 2,500 of the remaining civilians have now taken refuge in Damascus schools.

“I don’t have the strength to walk any more,” said Umm Mohammed, a woman in her 70s, in a video distributed to media organisations by an activist, Rami el-Sayyed.

“I haven’t left my house for fear of it being looted. But if they open the road, I don’t want to stay any more,” she said.

“We left Palestine and we’re still suffering. What did the Palestinians do to deserve all this?”

Yarmouk, which is Syria’s largest refugee camp lying seven kilometers south of Damascus, was initially attacked by IS on April 1, and the group subsequently took over up to 90 percent of the camp.

Armed Palestinian factions have fought back and Syria’s air force has struck IS positions in the camp.

Although the PLO has publicly rejected involvement in a military campaign, citing a longstanding policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of Arab nations, on Saturday PLO envoy to Syria Ahmed Majdalani said the situation was out of the hands of the Palestinian leadership.

Majdalani told Ma’an that the resort to military action had been imposed on Palestinian groups by IS, and that negotiations would not be workable.

Fighting south of Damascus

In fighting south of Damascus, meanwhile, 35 people were killed as pro-government forces repelled an attack on a key military airport by IS-affiliated militants, a monitoring group said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the attack targeted the outskirts of Khalkhalah military airport in Sweida province on Friday.

Syria’s official news agency SANA said the army had “blocked attempts from IS terrorists to infiltrate” areas near the airport.

Khalkhalah lies along a major highway between Damascus and the regime-held city of Sweida, a stronghold of the Druze minority that has largely avoided the bloodshed of Syria’s war.

The attack on Khalkhalah was the first by IS, but the airport has been previously targeted by rebels and Syria’s Al-Qaeda affiliate, Al-Nusra Front.

In the northern city of Aleppo, at least 10 civilians were killed in rebel shelling of a Christian district and 10 others in regime bombardment of an area under rebel control, according to the Observatory.

More than 215,000 people have been killed in Syria’s four-year war, which is increasingly dominated by extremist groups.

AFP contributed to this report.

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Hamas Denies Arrest Of Islamic State Member In Gaza

GAZA CITY (Ma’an) — The Hamas run Gaza Ministry of Interior on Thursday denied the existence of the Islamic State group in the Gaza Strip.

Ministry spokesman Iyad al-Bizm said in a statement that there were no known IS members in Gaza, and denied that security forces had made any arrests connected to the group.

He added that “exaggerations” by media outlets were completely untrue.

The official said a man was arrested after refusing to respond to a subpoena twice. Al-Bizm said the man had already been released.

Earlier Thursday, supporters of IS in Gaza called for the release of several members they said had been detained by Hamas security services.

The group, which calls itself “Supporters of the Islamic Caliphate State,” demanded that security forces release the men in the next few days, adding that “threats and political arrests will not succeed in failing IS’s unification project.”

On Monday, Hamas-run security services arrested a radical Salafist sheikh, accusing him of membership in the Islamic State group, a source told AFP.

“Adnan Khader Mayat from the Bureij refugee camp (in central Gaza) was arrested as part of an investigation,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity and without giving further details.

Hamas forces have in the past cracked down hard on Salafist groups in the coastal enclave.

In a separate statement, sources close to Salafists who are currently being held behind bars accused Hamas of “continuing its raids among our brothers and sons,” denouncing the recent arrest of their two younger members.

“These actions will lead to an escalation which nobody wants,” it warned.

In recent months, there have been a number statements claiming minor attacks that were signed by “the Islamic State-Gaza governorate” but most were dismissed on jihadist forums.

So far, no Gaza-based movement has declared its allegiance with the IS movement, experts say, although they say such claims show a desire on the part of local factions to be included in the IS fold.

According to a recent survey conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, an overwhelming majority of Palestinians do not hold favorable views towards IS.

Survey results showed that 86 percent of Palestinians believe IS is a radical group that does not represent true Islam, versus 8 percent that believe it does represent true Islam and 6 percent that aren’t sure.

In the Gaza Strip specifically, the percentage is slightly higher with 13 percent believing IS is representative of their understanding of Islam.

A spokesman of the Palestinian Authority’s security services Adnan Dameiri announced in February 2015 that Palestine is free from any cells affiliated to the Islamic State militant group.

“We are obviously adamant not to have ISIS or umbrellas for them in Palestine. Those who have been trying to create the ISIS phenomenon are Israel and Hamas given that the Muslim Brotherhood movement is the incubator which created al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Nusra Front and other Jihadist and Takfiri organizations,” he said.

The PA security services, added the spokesman at the time, had interrogated several suspects over affiliation to ISIS, but they were all set free after they proved their innocence.

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PLO Official To Hold Talks With Syria On Yarmouk Relief

RAMALLAH (AFP) — A senior Palestinian official said Monday he was headed to Damascus for talks on helping residents inside the Yarmouk refugee camp, parts of which have been overrun by the Islamic State group.

Hundreds of families have been evacuated from the camp in a southern neighborhood of Damascus after IS militants launched on attack on Wednesday.

Palestinian forces inside Yarmouk are largely surrounded by IS fighters who have captured large parts of the camp.

Ahmed Majdalani, an official with the PLO, told AFP that he would discuss with Syrian officials “ways to offer help to our people in the Yarmouk camp”.

In a statement, the PLO called for “all sides to immediately agree to protect the camp from efforts to turn it into a battlefield”.

It also called for civilians to have access to relief corridors and to humanitarian and medical assistance.

Majdalani accused IS militants of “seeking to control the whole camp” and to use it “as a springboard for attacks on the Syrian capital Damascus because of its strategic location”.

Since the militant advance began, regime forces have pounded the camp with shells and barrel bombs, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.

“We don’t need to turn our people into human shields and pay the price for a fight that they have no role in,” Majdalani told AFP.

Dozens of Hamas and Islamic Jihad supporters meanwhile protested in Gaza on Monday to demand an end to the violence in Yarmuk.

“We demand the attackers immediately stop their killing,” former Hamas justice minister Mohamed Faraj al-Ghul told protesters outside the parliament building in the Gaza Strip.

Yarmouk “must be a neutral place, far from the madness of war,” he said, urging an international intervention to “stop the killing”.

Earlier, President Mahmoud Abbas expressed grave concern over the crisis in Yarmouk, PLO executive committee member Saeb Erekat said.

Abbas denounced the “hideous crimes by the Islamic State group against our people,” said Erekat.

Palestinians “are people who live under occupation. When countries of the world suffer crises, their people later return to their countries, but we are denied our right to return, and we live in danger even in refugee camps,” the PLO negotiator added.

Yarmouk was once a thriving neighborhood home to 160,000 Palestinian refugees and Syrians but has been caught up in the country’s civil unrest which began in 2011.

It has been besieged by regime forces for more than a year and only about 18,000 residents are estimated to remain in the camp after many fled the fighting.

IS, which has seized control of large parts of Syria and Iraq, has fought not only against the President Bashar Assad’s regime but also against other rebel groups as it seeks to expand the territory under its control.

Ma’an staff contributed to this report.

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PLO Evacuates 2,000 Palestinians From Syria’s Yarmouk Camp

Violence has flared up inside the camp, which accommodates tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees, since Wednesday when Daesh militants stormed it and clashed with Aknaf Beit Al-Maqdis militant group

RAMALLAH, Palestine 

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) has relocated some 2,000 Palestinians from Syria’s flashpoint Yarmouk refugee camp, a PLO official said on Sunday.

Ahmed Magdalani, who oversees Yarmouk camp in the PLO, said that his organization was conducting an emergency plan for Palestinians inside Yarmouk after Daesh militants seized parts of the camp over the past few days.

“The [PLO] plans on relocating as many residents as possible while working on facilitating the entry of food and medical supplies inside the camp,” Magdalani told The Anadolu Agency.

He also said that he will visit Damascus on Monday to monitor the situation in Yarmouk from there.

Violence has flared up inside the camp, which accommodates tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees, since Wednesday when Daesh militants stormed it and clashed with Aknaf Beit Al-Maqdis militant group.

Yarmouk, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, is located in southern Syrian capital Damascus.

Around 166 Palestinian residents of the camp starved to death in mid-2013 when Syrian regime forces besieged it.

Syria has been ravaged by a deadly civil war since 2011, when the regime of President Bashar al-Assad violently cracked down on anti-government demonstrations.

More than 220,000 people have been killed in the conflict to date, according to recent UN figures.

Prior to the Syrian conflict, Palestinians living in Syria were estimated at some 581,000 – one third of which had been living in Yarmouk camp, according to UN figures.

However, thousands of Palestinians in Syria have fled to neighboring Lebanon and Jordan, while hundreds of others managed to flee to the Gaza Strip as the conflict between Assad’s forces and armed opposition groups raged on.

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Palestinians Trapped As ISIS And al-Nusra Front Seize Syria camp

BEIRUT (AFP) — Thousands of Palestinian civilians are trapped in Syria’s Yarmouk camp, which is besieged by government forces and has been largely overrun by fundamentalist militants, an opposition official said Saturday.The camp in Damascus is now almost completely under the control of the Islamic State group (IS) and Al-Qaeda’s local branch Al-Nusra Front, a monitoring group said.

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA issued an urgent plea for humanitarian access to the area, saying the situation in Yarmouk was a “source of universal shame.”

Militants from IS first attacked the camp, just seven kilometers (four miles) from central Damascus, on Wednesday.

They were initially repelled by Palestinian forces inside Yarmouk, but have since captured 90 percent of the sprawling area.

“The residents of the camp are between the devil and the deep blue sea,” said Ayman Abu Hashem, who heads the Syrian opposition interim government’s committee on Palestinian refugees.

“The camp is surrounded by the regime, and inside the forces of IS have almost completely taken over.”

Abu Hashem said Palestinian forces from the Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis group, which is loyal to the Palestinian movement Hamas, were effectively encircled by the militants.

And he said fears were running high that IS would take revenge in the camp because members of the group were expelled by residents and fighters last year.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said fundamentalist forces now controlled 90 percent of Yarmouk, which was once home to 160,000 people, both Syrian and Palestinian.

Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said Al-Nusra fighters were not battling alongside IS forces, but were also not opposing the group’s advances.

18 killed

Palestinian officials accused Al-Nusra of facilitating IS’s entrance into Yarmouk, where the population has dwindled to just 18,000 residents.

Al-Nusra and IS are largely rivals, despite sharing a similar Wahhabi fundamentalist ideology, though there have been instances of local cooperation between fighters from the two movements.

Abdel Rahman said at least 18 people had been killed since the fighting in the camp began on Wednesday, six civilians and 12 Palestinian fighters.

Two fighters were beheaded, he said, and photos depicting two decapitated heads purportedly in the camp were circulated by fundamentalist militants on social media.

The Observatory also reported government air strikes on the camp, though there was no immediate information on casualties.

Yarmouk’s residents have suffered through regular clashes, government shelling and a regime blockade that has caused medical and food shortages.

Syrian forces remain outside the camp, and sources said troops had set up additional checkpoints around Yarmouk after the fighting began.

An agreement last June between the government and rebels, backed by Palestinian factions, led to easing of the blockade.

But humanitarian access has remained limited and was halted completely with the fundamentalist advance.

On Saturday, UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness described the situation in the camp as “an affront to the humanity of all of us, a source of universal shame.”

“The humanitarian actors on the ground, like UNRWA, must have immediate access to bring urgent assistance to civilians,” Gunness said.

He urged “moral and diplomatic leadership from the international community” to ensure the protection of civilians.

Palestinian officials in the West Bank and Gaza also called for action, and the Syrian opposition National Coalition urged a safe passage for civilians.

The body called for “urgent intervention” from the Arab League and United Nations “to force the regime to open a safe passage for the safety of civilians.”

Ma’an staff contributed to this report.