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The Fall of Yarmouk: War Economy Laws Leave Capital of Palestinian Diaspora in Ruins

An investigative report has uncovered the manipulation of property rights and compensation in the Yarmouk camp for Palestinian refugees in Damascus. The report sheds light on the involvement of militias and individuals, labeled as fronts for the regime, who have systematically worked to strip Palestinian refugees of their rights.

The investigation is based on testimonies and interviews with displaced individuals from the camp, as well as reports and statistics from human rights organizations. Additionally, books and correspondence between parties affiliated with the Syrian government were reviewed to further substantiate the findings.

By: Ahmed Murad

In May 2018, Ammar al-Qudsi was forced to flee from the southern outskirts of Damascus, Syria to the north along with others who refused to sign a reconciliation agreement with the Syrian government. He left behind his home, which he had built on a piece of land inherited from his grandfather, who had been displaced from Palestine during the Palestinian Nakba in 1948.

According to the Palestinian Camps Encyclopedia, approximately one million people, including a quarter of a million Palestinians, were displaced from the camp since the “Mig massacre” in mid-2012 until government forces regained control in 2018.

The military operations had led to the destruction of the camp, and the “looting workshops” supervised by the Syrian army resulted in the theft of the remaining materials that had not been destroyed by the bombing, including the contents of homes and iron from the buildings.

Until the end of 2011, the Yarmouk camp was one of the most densely populated and affordable markets in Damascus. According to researcher Nabil Al-Sahli, “The economic condition of the Yarmouk camp, particularly its clothing and gold markets, was widely renowned. Its proximity to the Damascene neighborhoods of Al-Midan and Al-Zahira attracted a mixture of Palestinian merchants, people from other governorates, and Damascus merchants, who saw it as an additional market opportunity.”

Ownership Laws Blown Away by New Regulatory Scheme: A Closer Look

In mid-2020, the Damascus Governorate issued the “General Organizational Plan for the Yarmouk Region.” This plan divided the camp into three areas based on the extent of damage sustained. Consequently, the camp’s dwellings were classified as either structures or rubble, not covered by ownership laws, since they were built on lands leased from the state to the General Organization for Palestinian Refugees.

Ammar, a victim of forced displacement due to the war, has been subject to security laws and measures that prevent Palestinian refugees from returning to the Yarmouk camp, also known as the “capital of the diaspora.” Meanwhile, like many others, Ammar has become a victim of laws that require him to return and prove ownership under the threat of losing it.

The Fourth Division, led by Maher al-Assad, brother of the Syrian regime’s head, Bashar al-Assad, demands payment of $1,000-1,500 to permit civilians to repair their homes.

Currently, “Al-Qudsi” resides in a temporary camp located in northern Syria under opposition control. Around 1,500 Palestinian families, as documented by the Palestinian Refugee Documentation Center in the north, were accommodated in these camps. The remaining residents of Yarmouk are dispersed throughout Syrian governorates, neighboring countries, and some have emigrated to Europe.

Yarmouk camp, situated in the southern suburbs of Damascus - 18 March, 2023. (Source: Syria Indicator - World Imagery)
Yarmouk camp, situated in the southern suburbs of Damascus – 18 March, 2023. (Source: Syria Indicator – World Imagery)

Waste of Ownership

Ammar al-Qudsi is the owner of a 61 square meter property in the Yarmouk camp, which he holds under a residence permit. In 1949, the General Authority for Palestinian Refugees was established under Resolution 450, leasing 2.1 square kilometers of land on the outskirts of the Syrian capital, Damascus, from the Syrian government. The authority distributed areas called “Numra” to refugees for the construction of buildings, providing them with a residence permit, which is estimated to account for one-third of the total real estate area of the Yarmouk camp.

In addition to the residence permit, other types of ownership exist in the Yarmouk camp, including an “official title deed” accounting for less than 6% of the total real estate ownership, notary agencies, court decisions placing judicial indications on properties in the event of a sale, and final sales contracts approved by the treasury to ensure financial right. The Rubble Removal Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization estimated the number of housing units in the Yarmouk camp at 128,000.

Residence permit for Palestinian refugees (Syria Indicator: exclusive)
Residence permit for Palestinian refugees (Syria Indicator: exclusive)

Syria Indicator’s investigation has uncovered an attempt to manipulate real estate ownership and change the organizational plan for the Yarmouk camp by exaggerating the percentage of damage to buildings caused by the war. Correspondence between the General Authority for Palestinian Refugees and the Damascus Governorate has revealed that the organizational chart issued by the governorate divides the camp into three areas according to the extent of the damage suffered. The plan proposes removing over 60% of the camp’s lands and converting them into residential towers, commercial markets, and public parks, while the remaining 40% will be included in the third phase of the plan, which may take over 15 years to implement.

However, the General Authority for Palestinian Refugees objected to the plan in a letter to the governorate, stating that the percentage of destruction used to prepare the plan was exaggerated and developed by the unilateral will of the company without consulting the rights holders. The authority also cited a report prepared by the local committee of the Yarmouk camp, which indicated that the rate of destruction did not exceed 20% in the real estate expropriated for the benefit of the authority.

The authority called on the Damascus governorate to keep the real estate belonging to the authority outside the organizational plan and not to revoke the prior agreement. 

Yarmouk camp organizational chart - (Internet)
Yarmouk camp organizational chart – (Internet)

The Syrian Council of Ministers has announced the dissolution of the local committee in the Yarmouk camp. This move comes after the committee revealed that property rights were being manipulated by the Damascus governorate. The committee had previously served as a private municipality for the camp since its establishment in 1964, and was headed by a Palestinian under the supervision of the Syrian Ministry of Local Administration. In 2018, the committee was attached to the Damascus governorate under Resolution No. 61.

Palestinian Baath Party request to reconsider Cabinet Resolution No. 61 - (Internet)
Palestinian Baath Party request to reconsider Cabinet Resolution No. 61 – (Internet)

Broken Apart: The Devastating Fragmentation of Yarmouk Camp’s Real Estate

Syria Indicator’s investigation has uncovered explicit legal violations of the real estate rights of Palestinian refugees in the Yarmouk region, as outlined in the organizational plan and government decisions. The investigation drew on a report by The Day After Organization, a Syrian civil society organization focused on documenting property and housing rights, which highlighted the impact of demographic identity variables on the societal fabric, property rights, and the return of refugees. The report revealed that the violations led to the fragmentation of the real estate unit of the camp, with the General Company for Engineering Studies, a government agency, ignoring the established fact that Yarmouk camp was a real estate unit belonging to the city of Damascus since its inception in the mid-1950s. Building permits obtained by the investigation and the organizational plan of the camp issued in 2004 confirm this fact. The plan, which identified the old camp and the areas of camp expansion, certified that the west and south of Yarmouk form a single real estate area comprising all the neighborhoods and alleys of the camp.

A building permit dating back to the year 1970 - (Syria Indicator: exclusive)
A building permit dating back to the year 1970 – (Syria Indicator: exclusive)

Legalized Confiscation: The Forceful Appropriation of Property

Amer al-Tabari, a Palestinian refugee and owner of one of the properties subject to reorganization in the camp, has been unable to claim alternative housing in accordance with Law 23/2015, which approved the organizational plan. The law mandates the implementing agency to establish alternative housing and pay rents for the evicted residents.

However, according to The Day After, compensation for reorganization based on the organizational scheme is closer to expropriation. The scheme, which covers housing and compensation for property owners included in the reorganization, is based on Decree No. 5 of 1982. This decree limits compensation according to the building area and not the buildings and concerns built on it. It is distributed into shares among the owners, and they are not entitled to claim compensation for the concerns or rooms built within this area, which are owned by the property owner and established by judicial rulings.

Currently, Amer al-Tabari works as a professor at the University of Damascus and resides in Babila neighborhood, south of Damascus, near the Yarmouk camp. He pays his monthly salary to rent a house and relies on financial transfers from his brother, who resides in the Gulf countries, every few months to secure his daily sustenance.

In a media statement, Muammar Dakak, Director of Technical Studies in the Damascus governorate, announced that residents of the Yarmouk camp will not receive alternative housing due to the organizational plan for the Yarmouk region being in accordance with Legislative Decree No. 5 of 1982.

Engineer Ahmed Taha, Director of the Housing and Property Rights Program (HLP), criticized the application of the Legislative Decree in The Day After, stating that “those affected by the scheme will have organizational shares and will not be included in alternative housing or rental compensation, which is unfair to property owners in areas subject to reorganization.” Taha added that the percentage of compensation for the rights of property owners in these areas is less than a quarter of the property value. Additionally, due to price differences and sharp inflation in the Syrian pound, compensation may not exceed 10% in the best case. The owner of the property must also buy a proportion of shares from the property they own, according to estimates from the authorized committee, and the price of the shares can be up to three times the compensation they will receive, leading to significant financial consequences and burdens for the owners.

Taha also highlighted that the high costs of building permits exceed the ability of poor families in the camp to bear the financial burdens, resulting in real estate companies, major speculators, and brokers controlling prices and reaping huge profits. Critics argue that the organizational plan is unfair to Yarmouk camp residents and fails to provide adequate compensation or alternative housing options. 

Real estate selling agency (Syria Indicator: exclusive)
Real estate selling agency (Syria Indicator: exclusive)

In the investigation conducted by Syria Indicator, attempts were made to contact the Damascus governorate for clarifications on the decision to reverse the implementation of Law 23 of 2015 and replace it with Law 5 of 1982. The aim was to ascertain the number of objections received on the organizational chart, as the Action Group for the Palestinians of Syria reported around 13,000 objections. However, as of the date of publication of the investigation, the site had not received any response from the governorate.

The Regime’s Economic Fronts Rake in the Swag

The “Syria Indicator” website obtained video footage from inside the Yarmouk camp, revealing the “looting” of buildings and the demolition of roofs to extract iron bars. Through investigating the individuals conducting these operations and gathering testimonies from Yarmouk camp residents, it was discovered that the “Ghajars,” or “Qarbat thirtieth Street,” as the residents know them due to their place of residence, work in workshops led by militia leaders working alongside the Fourth Division, led by the brother of the Syrian President. They carry out daily-wage “looting” operations, reminiscent of their living conditions when they resided near the car market on Thirtieth Street on the outskirts of the camp. These individuals, who belong to approximately 20 families, exceed 5,000 in number.

According to one testimony, different groups “gypsies,” extracted copper wires for electricity transmission and iron bars from the roof of Palestinian activist “Thaer Abu Sharekh’s” house. These groups operate under the watchful eyes of the Palestinian factions loyal to the Syrian army, the forces of the Fourth Division, and Branch 235, also known as the “Palestine Branch,” affiliated with the Military Intelligence Division.

The Syria Indicator’s investigation obtained a video clip dating back to December 2022, which depicts the ongoing looting operations in the camp, the extent of the destruction caused by military operations, the rubble in the streets of the camp, and its near-total population emptiness.

The Fourth Division is alleged to have played a major role in looting iron and demolishing buildings to extract iron bars and electricity wires. The process involved intermediaries and contractors using the security office of the Fourth Division. Local mediators were required to sell the seized scrap metal exclusively and at low prices to Metal Industries Company – Hadid, located in the Adra Industrial Zone, which is owned by businessman Mohamed Saber Hamsho.

According to the Financial Times, “Hamsho and Maher al-Assad made a deal to transport the scrap metal looted by the Fourth Division to Hamsho’s factory. The work is free, the materials are free – he gets everything without paying a single penny, and Maher and Hamsho use the soldiers and militias to control the scrap metal trade.”

The warehouses of Hamsho's Iron Company in Adra - the company's location – Image source: Internet
The warehouses of Hamsho’s Iron Company in Adra – the company’s location – Image source: Internet
Scrap iron in the Hamsho Iron Company in Adra - the company's location - Image source: Internet
Scrap iron in the Hamsho Iron Company in Adra – the company’s location – Image source: Internet

Hamsho’s looting of iron trade reportedly brought in profits of up to $10 million per month in early 2019, according to a report by researcher Ayman Desouky for the “Middle East Paths Program.” The re-melted iron was kept in warehouses belonging to the Fourth Division to cover current and future local demand during reconstruction. Meanwhile, the Fourth Division oversaw the export of re-melted copper scrap to Turkey through ports it controlled. According to the International Trade Center, copper exports ranked first among mineral ore exports in 2017 with a value of approximately $14 million.

Muhammad Hamsho and Samer Al-Fouz - Image source: Internet
Muhammad Hamsho and Samer Al-Fouz – Image source: Internet

In spite of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) bearing all the financial costs of rubble removal and forming a committee to oversee this matter, the “Al-Shihabi Contracting Company” reportedly took control of materials used in building materials. The company, owned by businessman Rustom Al-Shihabi, allegedly obtained building materials for free at the expense of the PLO, according to Palestinian human rights sources. Al-Shihabi is a supporter of the “Free Palestine” militia, led by Saed Abdel-Al, the son of Muhammad Abdel-Al, a member of the Palestinian regional leadership of the Arab Socialist Baath Party and a former pledge man in the Yarmouk camp.

The Free Palestine Militia was established after 2011 to suppress protests similar to Liwa al-Quds in Aleppo. Comprising Palestinian and Syrian elements, the militia works alongside a number of Palestinian military factions that participated in hostilities alongside Syrian government forces, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command, Fatah Intifada, Thunderbolt, and Palestinian Popular Struggle Front, among others

In one of the headquarters of the Free Palestine Militia - Al-Shihabi in the center of the picture, and to his left the military commander Sa'ed Abdel Al - Image source: Internet
In one of the headquarters of the Free Palestine Militia – Al-Shihabi in the center of the picture, and to his left the military commander Sa’ed Abdel Al – Image source: Internet

In one of the headquarters of the Free Palestine Militia – Al-Shihabi in the center of the picture, and to his left the military commander Sa’ed Abdel Al – Image source: Internet

Security Status Dictates Property Value: The Role of Real Estate Brokers

Ammar al-Qudsi attempted to sell his home in the Yarmouk camp, having lost all hope of returning, in the hope of obtaining funds to cover the costs of smuggling routes from the northern Syrian camps to Europe via Turkey. Despite receiving numerous offers from real estate brokers in the camp and its surrounding areas, none of them exceeded $8,000, which is a significant decrease from its pre-2011 price of more than $22,000.

An analysis conducted by Syria Indicator, based on official documents and statements, revealed that the organizational plan of the camp covers an area of 220 hectares, which is slightly larger than the area of the Marota City project, also known as the “East Mezzeh” organization, in the capital city of Damascus, which covers 210 hectares. The estimated value of a square meter in the Yarmouk camp was $150, compared to the price per square meter in Marota City, which is six times higher or about $900, according to several contractors’ statements.

According to the analysis, the value of the housing units in the Yarmouk camp was $1.28 billion, with 128,000 housing units and an average of $10,000 per housing unit, as per the prices set by real estate brokers for homeowners. The average loss reached 50% of the value of those properties compared to their value in 2011. Meanwhile, the price of 12,000 housing units in Marota City distributed over 186 residential buildings in 2011 reached $1.6 billion.

The analysis concluded that the value of housing units in Marota City is approximately 25% higher than the total value of housing units in Yarmouk Camp, despite the number of housing units in Marota City being less than 10% of the number of housing units in Yarmouk Camp. The price per square meter in Marota City is equivalent to the price of 12 square meters in Yarmouk camp. These are the profits that real estate development companies owned by the Syrian government and warlords await.

After Syrian forces took control of the Yarmouk camp, real estate sales resumed through brokers and mediators for unknown parties. Palestinian activists confirmed that procurement agents such as “Abu Al-Abd Asaad” and the “Nubala’s Office” in Al-Zahira neighborhood, Damascus, were present in the camp. Some brokers targeted opponents of the regime who had been displaced to northern Syria, blackmailing them to obtain approvals to buy homes.

Yasser Qashlaq, founder of the Free Palestine militia, is the most famous real estate dealer in the Yarmouk camp. He has worked for the Iranian construction company “Nikon” and is a close associate of the Lebanese Hezbollah and President Bashar al-Assad. Qashlaq participated in the Freedom Convoy to Gaza in 2010 to polish his image, in cooperation with journalist Samar Al-Hajj, wife of Major General Ali Al-Hajj, who is accused in the Hariri assassination case.

According to testimony from a survivor of detention to the Refugee Today website, Qashlaq sponsored the “Binaa Syria” initiative, using his relations with the Syrian President to release 50 university students from prisons and then join them in the youth institution he founded under the name “Basmat Shabab Suria.”

Al-Qudsi stated that house purchases are classified according to the owner’s security status. The prices offered to opponents of the regime and those wanted by security forces do not exceed a quarter of the actual value of the property. Refugees who are not wanted can collect half the value of their real estate. Residents in areas loyal to the regime can enjoy the highest value of their real estate, up to 60%, provided there is proof of ownership. In the absence of proof, the value of the property decreases up to half of this value for all three categories, according to intersectional testimonies.

Real estate value varies according to the area within the Yarmouk camp. According to a former employee of the Yarmouk municipality, who asked not to be named, the area is divided into four categories based on real estate value before 2011. The West Yarmouk area, located between Yarmouk and Thirty streets up to Palestine Hospital, is the first and most expensive area. The second area in terms of real estate value is east of Yarmouk, located between Yarmouk and Palestine streets, where a commercial square meter costs approximately 300,000 Syrian pounds. The 8 March neighborhood located behind Palestine Hospital is the third most expensive area, while the Al Taqaddam neighborhood is the cheapest.

“Unattainable Requirements” for Yarmouk Camp Residents’ Return

Syria Indicator’s investigation discovered the Syrian government’s conditions for Yarmouk camp residents to return home. The website obtained testimonies from camp residents that contradict what was announced by the Quartet Committee regarding return conditions, which include sound building structures, proof of ownership, and necessary approvals. Witnesses stated that property owners must prove ownership and clear services since 2012, including electricity, water, telephone, municipality, and financial services. After meeting the first two conditions, a security audit is conducted. The Syrian authorities reject entry requests if the property owner is a wanted person or an opponent of the government.

On January 23, 2023, Al-Baath newspaper reported that the Syrian government asked real estate owners in the camp to report to the Yarmouk Services Department to relocate and remove buildings that are fallen or about to collapse, partially or completely. The government allowed them one month from the date of the announcement to comply and threatened to remove the rubble and fine the building owners.

“Amer al-Tabari” reported a public theft carried out by the “Fourth Division” after the buildings and their owners had already suffered losses. They demand payment ranging between 1,000 and 1,500 dollars from owners of partially damaged homes who have started restoring their homes, under the threat of demolition and extraction of iron bars.

Al-Qudsi confirmed that around 300 families have returned to the Yarmouk camp, and 90% of them belong to Palestinian factions loyal to the Syrian government, such as the “Ahmed Jibril Forces.”

  Caught Between Laws: The Second Nakba Looms

The relationship between Urban Planning Law No. 10 of 2018 and the new Yarmouk camp reconstruction plan is evident in the restrictions it imposes on proving real estate ownership for Syrians and Palestinians alike. “Large groups of displaced Palestinians and Syrians from the Yarmouk camp are deprived of the ability to prove their ownership due to the security requirements set by the law. This makes a safe return impossible for many who are considered opponents of the regime,” according to Palestinian researcher and human rights activist Ayman Abu Hashem.

The law stipulates the establishment of regulatory areas throughout Syria designated for reconstruction. The criteria for classifying an area as a regulatory area is not specified, but it is determined by a decree issued within a week of the decree for the reconstruction of an area. Local authorities must request a list of real estate owners from government real estate agencies operating in the region.

Real estate owners have 30 days to provide proof of ownership, or they will not be compensated. Everyone residing in these areas must leave, while local authorities will provide compensation equivalent to two years’ rent for tenants who do not qualify for alternative housing.

Ayman Abu Hashem, head of the Masir Gathering for Palestinian Refugees, spoke about the absence of local and international legal mechanisms capable of safeguarding the rights of Syrians and their real estate rights. He compared the situation to the Israeli Absentee Property Law, which took away the rights of Palestinian fathers and grandfathers and stripped them of their lands before the Palestinian Nakba in 1948. Abu Hashem believes that the systematic destruction of large parts of the camp was aimed at dismantling its historical and symbolic status.

The Absentee Law: 

The Absentee Law, which was enacted in Israel, defines as “absent” anyone who was displaced or left the borders of the State of Israel until November 1947, particularly due to the war. This includes all their properties such as lands, homes, and bank accounts, which are classified as “absentee property”. As a result, ownership is transferred to the State of Israel and managed by a trustee on behalf of the state.

Travel Document for Palestinian Refugees - (Syria Indicator: exclusive)
Travel Document for Palestinian Refugees – (Syria Indicator: exclusive)

According to Ayman Abu Hashem’s book “The Palestinians of Syria,” the majority of Yarmouk camp residents are refugees from the 1948 conflict. Syrian Law No. 260 of 1956 granted these Palestinians the same rights as Syrian citizens, except for the right to run for office and vote. They were referred to as “in the status of Syrian citizens,” which affected their registration at institutes and universities, and employment in government positions below the rank of General Manager. The 1965 refugees were also granted the same rights as Syrian citizens, except for the ability to hold permanent positions in state administrations. However, subsequent waves of Palestinian refugees in 1967, 1970, and 1982 were not covered by this law. In 2003, the Syrian government prevented refugees fleeing the Iraq war from entering the country, placing them in camps on the Syrian-Iraqi border. 

It is worth noting that for their safety, many of the names mentioned in the investigation are fictitious.

In collaboration with “The Day After” a civil society organization

Translated by: Nabil Nabo

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