Palestinian camp bombed, blockaded even though ‘no armed elements’ inside

AMMAN: An 11-day Syrian government bombing campaign has killed five people and destroyed the only hospital in an isolated Palestinian refugee camp southwest of Damascus in what one local councilman calls the “the worst days since the start of the revolution.”

On October 1, regime and Russian warplanes began bombing a cluster of villages in the West Ghouta countryside as part of a broader campaign to drive rebels out of the west Damascus suburbs. On the ground, regime forces are using artillery, but have gained little territory.

The bombings are destroying local infrastructure and transforming one settlement, the Khan a-Sheh Palestinian refugee camp 25km southwest of Damascus, into a veritable island within the already encircled opposition enclave.

“Bombings happen every night; five residents have died, including two children, and 34 have been injured,” Abu Muslim a-Derani, a councilman in the camp, told Syria Direct Tuesday.

“These have been the worst days since the beginning of the revolution,” said a-Derani.

 Fire caused by Monday’s airstrikes. Photo courtesy of Khan a-Sheh News.

Pro-regime media sources report that the government military campaign aims to “cut [terrorist] supply lines and uproot” armed groups from the Khan a-Sheh area, which is controlled by Ahrar a-Sham, Jabhat Fatah a-Sham and Free Syrian Army brigades.

Before the war, Khan a-Sheh was home to more than 30,000 refugees, whose families fled there in 1948 from northern Palestine. The Syrian government and UNRWA provided services, "but there was no international legal representation or protection for the refugees,” said Nikol Jafra, a spokeswoman for the Beirut-based Jafra Foundation, one of two aid organizations operating in the camp.

In March 2013, the Syrian army and allied militias partially encircled the Khan a-Sheh camp, leaving a dirt road to the nearby town of Zakia, often targeted by shelling and sniper fire, the only way for residents to access food and medicine from out of the camp. Locals refer to the route to Zakia as the “road of death.”

The road from the camp to Zakia “is open, but there is an 80 percent chance of getting shot if you try to cross,” said a-Deirani.

With no roads in or out of Khan a-Sheh, home to 12,000 Palestinian refugees and 800 displaced Syrian families, sources on the ground say the camp is quickly running out of fuel, food and medicine.

 One sign reads: “Our camp is free of weapons and armed groups.” Photo courtesy of Khan a-Sheh Media Center.

“The markets are basically empty. Merchants are only selling products that were grown here, such as tomatoes and eggplant,” said a-Deirani.

On the fifth day of the bombing campaign, an airstrike hit Khan a-Sheh’s only hospital.

Now, “injured residents go to small medical points, which lack most supplies, for treatment,” said a-Deirani.

In response to the bombings, UNRWA shut down all six of its schools, leaving 1,500 students in the camp without access to education, said Nikol.

“Residents are afraid of the Russian bombings,” said a-Deirani.

“Most people spend the night in their basements.”

‘No military presence’

Although Khan a-Sheh is nominally controlled by armed opposition groups, including Ahrar a-Sham, Jabhat Fatah a-Sham and Free Syrian Army brigades, camp residents do not allow armed militants to enter.

“There are no military factions inside the camp,” said a-Deirani, adding that “all of them are in the agricultural areas that surround the camp.”

If any Free Syrian Army soldier enters Khan a-Sheh, “he’ll be punished by his brigade.”

Aid organizations that operate in the camp, which before the war was home to thousands of well-educated, middle-class Palestinian families, say residents actively block militias from operating there.

“For a long time, the camp has resisted any type of militia entering the camp,” said Nikol. Two of Jafra’s volunteers in the camp, Mohammad Abo Sitteh and Abdullah Issa, were among those killed in the recent bombing campaign, she said.

On Tuesday, dozens of camp residents demonstrated against the recent bombings and siege. The protesters demanded that schools reopen and declared that no armed elements exist within the camp, the Palestinian Refugee Portal reported the same day.

“Residents are calling on the international community to send a neutral party into the camp,” said Nikol, “so they can show the world that this camp is free of armed elements.”

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

Jessica Page, Reporter/Translator

Jessica was a 2013-2014 Georgetown University Qatar Scholarship Program fellow in Doha, Qatar. She received her BA in both Arabic and International & Area Studies from Washington University in St. Louis. She has worked and studied in Jordan, Oman, and Qatar.

Orion Wilcox

Orion Wilcox was a 2014-2015 CASA fellow in Amman, Jordan where he interned with the UNRWA Jordan Field Office. He received his BA in Economics and Arabic language from the University of Mississippi. Following the CASA program, Orion worked as a freelance translator and interpreter in Amman.