UNRWA workers at the Yarmouk camp
UNRWA workers at the Yarmouk campReuters

The UN agency responsible for Palestinian Arab refugees on Monday said it had provided urgent supplies to around 500 civilians who have fled fighting in the Damascus neighborhood of Yarmouk, which has been stormed by the Islamic State (ISIS).

The mission to help the evacuees from the Yarmouk camp "was made possible following facilitation and dialogue with the Syrian government and local authorities", Pierre Kraehenbuehl, the head of the UNRWA agency, said in a statement quoted by Reuters.

"UNRWA has shown that we can work with the parties on the ground and secure access," he said in Damascus while on a humanitarian mission to address the crisis in Yarmouk, where UN officials have warned of a potential massacre.

ISIS terrorists launched an attack to seize Yarmouk from rival insurgents earlier this month. The camp, besieged by government forces since 2013, is estimated to be home to 18,000 people.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned last week that residents of Yarmouk were being "held hostage" by Islamic State terrorists and other extremists.

Ban said its residents "face a double-edged sword – armed elements inside the camp, and government forces outside". He demanded an end to hostilities, humanitarian access, and safe passage for civilians who wanted to leave.

UNRWA said its teams had been able to deliver life-saving medicines, food, water, mattresses and blankets during Monday's visit.

"In the coming days, UNRWA will continue to bring vital assistance to these people," Kraehenbuehl said, according to Reuters.

More than 200 people have been killed since the beginning of the government's siege on Yarmouk, including dozens who died of hunger.

The Yarmouk "refugee camp" is in fact a sprawling neighborhood at the southern edge of Damascus. Most of the Palestinians who live there are descendants of Arab refugees from Israel's War of Independence, though few are themselves refugees. Uniquely, the UN founded UNRWA as a separate agency to its official refugee agency UNHCR in order to perpetuate "Palestinian refugee" status to all descendants of actual Palestinian Arab refugees.

No other group of refugees - including Jewish refugees from Arab states or from the Arab armies which occupied Judea, Samaria and Gaza in 1948 and expelled Jewish residents - are granted such hereditary refugee status.

There are thousands of people registered as Palestinian refugees in Israel’s neighboring countries, including Lebanon and Syria. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have limited work options and are refused citizenship.