Occupied: Headlines From Palestine

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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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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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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.