Yarmouk Camp lies eight kilometers south of Damascus and houses the largest concentration of Palestinian refugees in Syria. It is also one of three “unofficial” Palestinian refugee camps in the country. Before the outbreak of the Syrian war in 2011 and the mass exodus of its residents, the camp and the surrounding area had a population of about 1.2 million residents, including about 160,000 Palestinian refugees. Yarmouk is unusual in that it has its own municipal authority, a high level of political activity because of the presence of all Palestinian factions, and an economic and cultural presence.
The camp was established in 1954 and 1955 when Palestinian refugees were moved out of mosques, schools, and hospitals in Damascus, especially from the districts of Sheikh Muhyiddin, Rukniddin, al-Amin neighbourhood (al-Alliance), and Mezze to a new residential area south of the city center. Palestinian researcher Ali Badran says that al-Hajj Amin al-Husseini gave the camp its name during a visit to the site in the summer of 1954. That year the General Administration for Palestinian Arab Refugees (GAPAR) rented a piece of land (2.1 square kilometers) in an area from the al-Hakim and al-Mahayni families. Administratively it was part of the al-Shaghour/ Basatin area of the capital.
Most of the Palestinian refugees in the camp were from the towns and village around Haifa, Acre, Lydda, Baysan, Nazareth, Tiberias, Nablus, Gaza, and the Jordan Valley. Most of them were refugees from 1948, who at the time numbered 85,000. They were joined at various times by about 63,000 others—from Lebanon and the demilitarized border areas in the 1950s, from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip after the Israeli attack in June 1967, from Jordan after the clashes in 1970 and 1971 between the Jordanian army and the Palestinian guerrilla groups, and from Lebanon after the Israeli invasion during the summer of 1982.
The camp is supervised by GAPAR, which was set up under law 450 of 25 January 1949 to deal with Palestinian refugees in Syria. GAPAR reported to the Interior Ministry until 1958, and then it reported to the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs. The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) also is responsible for all services in the camp, except for collecting refuse because Yarmouk is considered an “unofficial” camp by the agency. Decree no. 1141, issued by the Ministry of Municipal and Village Affairs on 20 June 1962, detached the camp from Yalda municipality, and a local committee was set up to assume the tasks of a local council. Later, in November 2018, the Syrian cabinet decreed that the Damascus governorate should replace the Yarmouk Camp local committee, taking on all its powers and responsibilities.
In 1954 the GAPAR opened an office at the northern entrance to the camp. There it received requests from refugees and offered them land in the areas designated for residential use. Each family was allocated a plot of land four meters by ten meters, or two plots combined for large families. At the time UNRWA gave grants of 300 Syrian pounds for each room. Later this was changed to three bags of cement and ten reinforcing bars for the roof and the main beam.
The camp began to evolve in the form of two parallel lines of single-story buildings with mud roofs. At first the refugees were not allowed to use reinforced concrete. The first line began at the northern entrance to the camp, which is known as the Bridge, where the first neighbourhood, Harat al-Fida’iyya, was established. This line of buildings extends southward, forming Yarmouk Street, whereas the other line forms Palestine Street, which also extends from the Bridge area as far as the Palestine roundabout and the borders of Yalda municipality.
In 1957 GAPAR gave out another piece of land shaped like a bow, separated from the two streets by fields and orchards planted with grain crops and fruit trees. The same year it gave away a large piece of land that became the main body of Yarmouk Camp. The camp was divided into small sections of no more than sixty meters by eight meters, separated by narrow lanes between five and six meters wide.
In the first half of the 1960s, the camp extended southward and also westward with the revival of the real estate market in adjoining areas. It also expanded to what is now the eastern side of Yarmouk Street. The outlines of the third expansion began to take shape in the second half of the 1960s and the early 1970s on the western side of Yarmouk Street, to the south toward Thalathin Street and east toward the Tadamon neighborhood.
During these expansions, unplanned areas sprang up on farmland or state-owned land that had been converted into residential land without permits from GAPAR or the agreement of the municipality. So the west Yarmouk area is the only state land that was cultivated and turned into a residential area.
Most of the neighborhoods and streets are named after Palestinian cities, towns, and villages, such as Haifa, Lubya, Safad, Jerusalem, Mansoura, and Acre. There are also the Taqaddum (“Progress”), the March 8, and the ‘Uruba (“Arabism”) neighborhoods whose land was not allocated by GAPAR, so they developed informally without a master plan and without getting permits from the municipality. Refugees bought properties in these areas from the owners and through a notarized power of attorney, that is, without being registered in the land registry. A large number of houses in the camp were constructed on properties expropriated for the benefit of GAPAR and placed by the latter at the disposal of refugees; in some instances the owner obtained a decision of ownership from the court. Other houses were registered regularly in the land registry. A Palestinian in Syria is entitled to own only one house, provided that he has a family and pledges that the ownership of the house is for the purpose of personal housing and not investment.
Yarmouk Camp has water, electricity, and sewerage services provided by GAPAR, the Yarmouk municipality, and UNRWA. Until the end of the 1960s the camp drew water from wells dug inside houses to a depth of no more than ten meters. Between 1968 and 1970, UNRWA dug artesian wells and the residents used them until 1972, when the Ein al-Fija potable water network was extended and the western part of the camp obtained water from that network (but not on a regular basis). A proper network was provided in the second half of the 1990s, and in 1999 the Taqaddum and ‘Uruba neighborhoods began to receive water from the artesian wells that were dug in the southeastern part of the camp.
A project to install a main sewer line in Yarmouk Camp began in 1965 and ended in some parts of the camp in 1968/69, using pipes with a diameter of 30 to 50 centimeters in most parts. But the urban expansion added to the pressure on the sewerage network. The camp was connected to the electricity grid in southern Damascus in the years 1957/8. Parts of the old grid were replaced in 1997 and 1998, and camp residents then paid their electricity bills based on meter readings.
The Evolution of Socioeconomic Conditions
Palestinian refugees registered with GAPAR are subject to Syrian law and have rights equal to Syrian citizens in all respects, except that they do not have the right to vote or to stand as candidates for parliament or for local councils. Law 260, passed on 10 July 1956, gave Palestinian refugees equality with Syrian citizens with respect to the right to work, engage in business, serve in the army, and seek government employment, all while retaining Palestinian nationality.
These rights to engage in economic and social activity have helped to integrate Palestinian refugees into Syrian society, and some of them have risen to high office in government institutions. As far as the distribution of the Palestinian workforce is concerned, both the public and private service sector has absorbed the greatest share, followed by construction, manufacturing, trade, and agriculture.
UNRWA provides health care to Palestinian refugees in the camp through the three dispensaries that it supervises: the Mohamed V dispensary on Palestine Street, at the vegetable market junction; the Jalil dispensary on the extension of Street 30, between Palestine Street and Yarmouk Street; and the Palestine dispensary close to the Palestine roundabout. In addition to healthcare services, the three dispensaries provide laboratory and dental services and organize the transfer of patients to private and public hospitals in Damascus.
The Palestine Red Crescent Society offers health services to Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk Camp at nominal fees through the Palestine Hospital, the Deir Yassin medical complex, the Karmal Center, and the Palestine Prosthetics Center. The Martyr Fayez Halawa Hospital run by the Palestine Liberation Army has also provided medical services.
Civil society groups work in the camp, such as the Jam‘iyya al-Filastiniyya al-Khayriyya (Palestinian Charitable Association), which supervises the Martyr Basil al-Assad Hospital. The Jam‘iyyat al-Israa’ li-l-Tanmiya al-Khayriyya (Israa’ Association for Charitable Development) has helped to provide free healthcare to the poor and needy, and the Afya Association has contributed to the cost of expensive procedures such as kidney dialysis and major operations.
The camp is home to more than 450 private clinics with Palestinian and Syrian doctors and more than 140 pharmacies. The most common diseases in Yarmouk Camp are genetic disorders that result from marriages between close relatives, such as sickle-cell anemia and thalassemia, as well as some chronic diseases such as multiple sclerosis, tumors, sciatica, and migrainelike headaches.
After the battles in Yarmouk camp, and the siege that affected it in the period between late 2012 and 2018, most of these clinics stopped working, due to the destruction of some of them, such as the Palestine Hospital of the Palestine Red Crescent Society. Later, with the return of some camp residents in 2021, UNRWA reopened a center next to Abu Issa Café, the Palestine Liberation Army opened the Raja’ Abu Amasha Medical Center at the entrance to the camp, and the Palestine Red Crescent Society opened a third center.
UNRWA runs twenty-eight schools in the camp; to accommodate the number of students, instruction is provided in morning and afternoon shifts. Twenty of these schools are elementary schools and eight are preparatory schools (Grades 7-9). The schools have science laboratories, libraries, school halls, playgrounds, and sports and musical equipment. UNRWA has not provided secondary schools or universities, other than the Damascus Technical and Vocational Institute. On the other hand, the Syrian Ministry of Education has provided Palestinian refugees and Syrian citizens in Yarmouk Camp with elementary and preparatory schools and has made it possible for students to attend the two Yarmouk secondary schools (Grades 10-12), one for boys and one for girls, or other secondary schools in nearby areas such as al-Midan and al-Zahera. Palestinian refugees in Syria are entitled to free university education in all subjects at Syrian universities throughout the country. The camp also has twenty nurseries and kindergartens.
In the early years, Yarmouk inhabitants were Palestinian refugees, all of whom faced harsh economic conditions as a result of being displaced from their homes, whether they came from towns or the countryside. But the social structure underwent great change after tens of thousands of Syrians came to live in the camp. Yet the camp still retains a nominally Palestinian identity, which is especially evident in the Palestinian nationalist slogans painted on the walls, the posters of Palestinian groups, and the graves of the martyrs.
Political and Cultural Activity
The camp has seen political and militant activity. In 1949, a core group in a Palestinian guerrilla unit in Syrian reconnaissance was set up to carry out operations inside Palestine. It was reconstituted as Brigade 68 on the orders of Colonel Abdel Hamid al-Siraj during the union between Syria and Egypt, and fighters from Yarmouk lost their lives during its operations inside occupied territory; among them, Ali al-Kharboush and Muflih al-Salem were killed during an operation in Upper Galilee. Political and military activity developed in the camp with the growth of the Arab Nationalist Movement, the Baath Party, the Palestine Liberation Front, and then with the foundation of the Fateh Movement, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular Front–General Command, Saiqa, the Palestinian Communist Party, and other Palestinian factions. Most of these groups opened offices in the camp. In the 1990s Islamic Jihad and Hamas also opened offices in the camp and in the 2000s Right of Return Committees opened offices, to document Palestinian villages and towns and carry out other activities relevant to the right of return.
In the early 1960s Yarmouk Camp was the site of cultural activity in the form of discussions held in private houses, such as the soirees of the critic Youssef Sami al-Youssef and the poet Ibtisam al-Samadi. Since then, private libraries began to take shape in the homes of Youssef Sami al-Youssef, Daoud Yaacoub, Mahmoud al-Samadi, Ali Badran, Ahmed Said Nejm, and Dr. Mahmoud Maw‘id. These libraries were open to people for reading or borrowing books. In 1973 the al-Rashid bookshop on Yarmouk Street, offering readers a variety of books at nominal prices. Cultural centers and public libraries were set up in later times, and especially in the 1990s: the Palestine Cultural Center with its three libraries, the Arab Cultural Center run by the Ministry of Culture, and the Ghassan Kanafani Forum. The publishing houses Dar al-Shajara, al-Karmel, and al-Maw‘id set up their main offices in the camp. In the early 1960s the Palestinian factional magazines al-Hurriyya and al-Hadaf set up their headquarters in the camp. The Yarmouk cinema opened in the early 1960s, followed by the Karmel cinema and the Nujum, where Palestinian national and cultural events were held. Singing and folk dance groups were also established, such as al-Ashiqeen musical group, with most of the members coming from the camp, specifically from the Magharba neighborhood.
The camp has been home to many prominent cultural figures, such as Faisal Darraj, Ahmed Barqawi, Youssef Salama, Ghassan al-Shehabi, Hamad Maw‘id, Taleb Yaacoub, Hanaa Deeb, Salwa al-Refa‘i, May Jalili, Ghassan al-Saadi, Hassan Sami Youssef, Youssef Hittini, Mahmoud and Ahmed al-Sersawi, Maher and Bassam Raja, Neama Khaled, Samir Salama, Fajer Yaacoub, and Bashar Ibrahim.
Yarmouk Camp after 2012
When conflict broke out in Syria in March 2011, those responsible for the camp, together with officials of the PLO factions active there, decided that the camp would remain neutral. A delegation of camp officials and residents went to the nearby al-Hajar al-Aswad district, which had been taken over by opponents of the Syrian government, to tell them that the camp was neutral. But on 16 December 2012, anti-government forces came into the camp in order to control the southern gateway to the capital. The Syrian army responded with an air raid that hit the Abdel Qadir al-Husseini mosque, which is close to Safad and Loubia Streets and to an UNRWA school in Schools Street, off Yarmouk Street. The following day most of the camp residents moved to other parts of the city and its suburbs. After anti-government forces including Islamic State of Iraq and Syria forces took over the camp, the army imposed a military siege. Only a few thousand Palestinian refugees were left in the camp, living in dire conditions. The siege was not lifted until 2018, after the Syrian army and its reserve forces launched a military operation that covered all parts of the camp and succeeded in forcing the opposition fighters out.
After the Syrian government restored control, the Damascus governorate issued in 2020 a detailed master plan for the Qaboun and Yarmouk areas, including a comprehensive reorganization of the most damaged areas and the provision of services for the less damaged areas, which would make it possible for 40 percent of the residents to return. The plan divided Yarmouk camp, an area of 220 hectares (540 acres), into three areas: Area 1, 93 hectares classified as heavily damaged; Area 2, 48 acres classified as moderately damaged; and Area 3, 79 hectares classified as slightly damaged. The plan called for complete and radical reconstruction of Area 1, with thirteen-story tower blocks and residential blocks with between six and eight stories. The streets would be widened, and there would be parks, commercial buildings, and sports and cultural amenities.
The camp residents, Palestinian factions and GAPAR rejected the plan for Yarmouk Camp and submitted their objections in writing to the Damascus governorate.
Objectors claimed the plan would deprive the camp residents of their property and real estate rights and could prevent them from returning to it, tearing up its social fabric and its identity. GAPAR’s objection letter stated that the scheme exceeded what had been agreed upon. In the end, the Damascus Governorate decided to reconsider the plan and froze its implementation. Then, on 10 September 2021, the Syrian government allowed camp residents to return and started to provide some basic services to the camp.