Residents of Yarmouk wave PLO flags
Residents of Yarmouk wave PLO flagsReuters

Palestinian Arab officials visited Syria for the second time in less than a month on Tuesday to discuss efforts to protect the Yarmouk neighborhood of Damascus and its residents from the conflict.

A delegation led by Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) official Zakaria al-Agha met with Syria's deputy foreign minister Faisal Muqdad and social affairs minister Kinda Shamat, local PLO official Anwar Abdel Hadi told AFP.

The talks discussed ways to "make the camp neutral so it will be kept out of the conflict in Syria," Abdel Hadi was quoted as having said.

The talks also covered the possibility of expelling all gunmen from the neighborhood and "the need to supply food aid" to both those still in the neighborhood and residents who have sought refuge outside it.

Yarmouk, which is referred to as a “Palestinian refugee camp”, had been besieged by government forces since 2013 and is estimated to be home to 18,000 people. In recent weeks it was stormed by the Islamic State (ISIS) jihadist group.

Palestinian Arab factions meanwhile control the north and east part of the neighborhood, with "intermittent clashes between the jihadists and factions," Abdel Hadi said.

Yarmouk’s population has shrunk to just 7,000 people, added Abdel Hadi, with thousands of residents who fled the IS onslaught now in shelters in the capital.

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.