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PLO Shifts Position On Joint 'Strike Force' Against IS In Yarmouk

A man walks past destroyed buildings in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in the Syrian capital, Damascus, that has been overrun by Islamic State militants in recent days.

A man walks past destroyed buildings in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in the Syrian capital, Damascus, that has been overrun by Islamic State militants in recent days.

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) has distanced itself from one of its officials who said he supported a joint "strike force" with the Syrian government to expel Islamic State (IS) militants from the Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus.

IS militants have overrun most of the Yarmouk camp after infiltrating it a week ago. According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) IS militants control as much as 90 percent of the camp. Before the IS infiltration, Yarmouk had been under siege by the Syrian government, resulting in a disastrous humanitarian crisis.

Palestinian media reports on April 9 initially said that, following a series of meetings with the Syrian government, the PLO had agreed to put together a joint fighting force that would include Palestinian fighters inside Yarmouk.

PLO executive committee member Ahmad Majdalani, whom the organization sent to Damascus to discuss the Yarmouk crisis with the Syrian government, told reporters that he was in favor of a Syrian military operation to expel IS militants from Yarmouk, Reuters reported.

Majdalani said that 14 Palestinian factions supported a "security solution that will be carried out in partnership with the Syrian state and will have as its priority maintaining the security of civilians."

"We agreed that there would be permanent cooperation with the Syrian leadership and the formation of a joint operations room with Syrian government forces and the Palestinian factions that have a significant presence in the camp or around it," Majdalani added.

Majdalani told the BBC that the military operation "will be conducted in cooperation between the Palestinian groups and the Syrian government through a joint operation center."

However, later on April 9, the PLO issued a statement from Ramallah saying that it would not be drawn into supporting any military offensive in Yarmouk.

“We refuse to be drawn into any armed campaign, whatever its nature or cover, and we call for resorting to other means to spare the blood of our people and prevent more destruction and displacement for our people of the camp,” the PLO said in its statement.

'Death Camp'

The PLO's statement reflects the initial position of Palestinian refugees in Syria, who had agreed to remain neutral in the Syrian civil war. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas insisted in mid-2013 that Palestinian refugees would not take sides in the fighting in Syria or in any spillover in Lebanon.

That position was reiterated on April 10 by Fatah Central Committee member Tawfiq Tirawi, who emphasized the neutrality of the Palestinian refugee camps in comments to the Palestinian news agency Maan.

Tirawi said that the camps would not be subject to interference from any party, especially "terrorist organizations who are trying to push our people into current events."

Tawfiq called on Palestinian fighters in Syria and Lebanon to work together to end the suffering of the Palestinians in Yarmouk and protect them from "terrorist organizations like Daesh [IS] and Jabhat Al-Nusra [Syria's Al-Qaeda affiliate]."

While the humanitarian situation in Yarmouk was at crisis levels before the invasion by IS militants last week, the clashes have exacerbated matters.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon likened Yarmouk to a "death camp" in comments on April 9.

He warned that the armed fighters inside the camp and Syrian government forces outside it are a double-edged sword for the thousands trapped there.

"We simply cannot stand by and watch a massacre unfold," Ban said.

While hundreds of Palestinians fled Yarmouk for the neighboring Yelda district following the IS infiltration, some residents insisted that they would not leave.

An elderly Palestinian man told a local news agency this week that he would only leave "to go to the [West Bank] or Gaza."

"Your barrel [bombs] frighten people; as long as we are carrying an olive branch we want to go and pick our olives; we won't want for your cartons; we won't wait for your aid; we want to go to our land or to die here and be buried here," the man said, according to RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq.

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena