The Yarmouk refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus was already an emblem of the enormous suffering unleashed by Syria’s civil war — and that was before the militants of the Islamic State moved in.
Besieged, starved and bombarded over the past two years, the camp is the scene of fresh calamity, with reports beginning to filter out of beheadings and other atrocities that have become Islamic State hallmarks.
Over the past few days, the Sunni militants have seized most of Yarmouk, officials and residents say, giving the group its most significant foothold to date in Damascus. Most Islamic State-held territory is in eastern Syria and northern and western Iraq, where the group has been the target of a months-long campaign of U.S.-led airstrikes.
Aside from the strategic location of the camp, on the Syrian capital’s southern flank and only a few miles from President Bashar Assad’s palace, U.N. and Palestinian officials say Yarmouk is on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe.
About 1,800 people remain trapped in the camp, which had a prewar population of about a quarter-million, many of them the descendants of Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes upon Israel’s creation in 1948. Before the civil war began in 2011, the camp was among the largest concentrations of Palestinians outside the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The crisis has struck a nerve with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, who feel a sense of kinship, and among Israeli Arabs still living in the northern Galilee region, where many of the camp’s Palestinian residents have family roots.
While beset from within by Islamic State fighters, Yarmouk is also encircled by Syrian forces, according to reports from aid groups and other observers on the ground. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, which aids Palestinian refugees, said Sunday it was ministering to nearly 100 civilians, including more than 60 women and children who had managed to make their way out.
“Never has the hour been more desperate” in Yarmouk, UNRWA said in a statement. “Men, women and children — Syrians and Palestinians alike — are cowering in their battered homes in profound fear, desperate for security, food and water … as hostilities continue.”
Hundreds of camp residents had fled in previous days, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which also reported that Syrian forces had dropped crude but deadly barrel bombs on Yarmouk as the Islamic State tightened its grip. UNRWA called for all sides to show “maximum restraint” so more civilians could be brought to safety.
On Saturday, a senior Palestinian official, Saeb Erekat, citing reports of abductions, decapitations and mass killings inside the camp, said the Palestine Liberation Organization had been trying for years through envoys to lift the siege of Yarmouk. Another Palestinian envoy, Ahmad Majdalani, was traveling to Damascus on Sunday, Palestinian officials said.
Yarmouk’s plight also illustrates the tangle of armed combatants fighting one another and Assad’s forces in Syria. On Sunday, Islamic State posted online images of more than a dozen men on their knees, facing a wall and apparently about to be executed. They were described as members of a Yarmouk-based rebel militia known as Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis, made up of Palestinian and Syrian fighters.
Although Aknaf Beyt al-Maqdis formerly battled factions loyal to government, the attack on its cadres by Islamic State pushed some of its fighters to now ally themselves with pro-government factions, according to camp leaders.
“The enemies of yesterday have become the friends of today,” said Abu Akram, a high-ranking official in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, a splinter group.
The West Bank-based Palestinian Authority describes Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis as affiliated with the Palestinian militant group Hamas, but Hamas says it has no real sway with the group. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah faction also says Hamas cooperates with extremists such as the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, which was said to have allowed Islamic State fighters to take over Yarmouk.
Hamas denies that, but joined in calls to spare the camp’s populace. “Hands off the Yarmouk camp,” Hamas official Salah Bardawil said at a rally in Gaza on Saturday. “Hands off the brutalized, the murdered, the starved.”
Unlike other Palestinian refugee camps in Syria that were set up soon after Israel’s founding, Yarmouk was not founded until 1957, gathering large numbers of Palestinians who were living as squatters in and near the Syrian capital. They were joined over the years by large numbers of displaced Syrians.
When the civil war broke out, Palestinians in Syria had initially tilted toward Assad as a strong supporter of their statehood aspirations, but they gradually became entangled with some of the array of armed groups opposing him, such as the Yarmouk-based militia. Abbas, speaking at a ceremony in Ramallah on Sunday, implored the Syrian combatants to leave the Palestinian refugees out of their fight.
“Spare them more hardships” he said.
Times staff writer King reported from Amman, Jordan, and special correspondent Bulos from Berlin. Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah contributed to this report.
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