Yarmouk Camp’s New Zoning Plan Postponed after Residents Push Back

The Damascus governorate last week issued a decision to delay issuing the final zoning plan for the Yarmouk Palestinian district in Damascus, which was largely destroyed in recent years as various factions battled for control of it. The delay came after objections to the plan from local residents themselves, as well as from Palestinian political forces in Syria and abroad.

Following last week’s decision to postpone the release of the zoning plan, Damascus Governor Adel Al-Olabi formed a committee, with himself as chair, to study potential solutions for the Yarmouk camp. The delay was the result of a decision by the prime minister’s office, along with letters from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the General Authority for Palestinian Refugees in Syria (GAPAR), according to local media reports.

Ibrahim Diab, Director of the Damascus governorate’s Office for Zoning and Organisation, said on a radio show last week that the governorate received “the most objections to any zoning plan in the history of Syria.” The governorate did not officially announce the cancellation of the new zoning plan, although Diab indicated that the possibility exists.

The Damascus Governorate Council announced the new zoning plan for Yarmouk in June. The plan was compiled by the General Company for Engineering Studies and Consulting, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Public Works and Housing. The company based its plan on studying the amount of damage wrought by the war on the area, and consulting the previous zoning plan from 2004, according to media reports. The older plan, which was approved in 2013, was never implemented.

According to estimates published in local media, Yarmouk residents submitted more than 10,000 objections to the new zoning plan during the objections period that ended on August 9. Afterwards, the province’s local committee held a meeting, headed by Al-Olabi, to study the objections. If approved, the zoning plan was to be transferred to the provincial council’s Executive Office, which in turn would submit it to the Ministry of Public Works and Housing for final approval and issuance of a regulatory decree in accordance with Planning and Urban Development Law No. 23 of 2015.

Those wishing to submit an objection had to visit the Damascus municipal building in person, or send one of their relatives to at most the fourth degree, which include both paternal and maternal cousins, to prove ownership of property in the camp. The objector also had to bring an ownership contract or similar document, in addition to the real estate number, a utilities bill and a copy of their personal ID. The fee for submitting an objection was set by the municipal council at SYP 700.

The new zoning plan was based on Law No. 5 of 1982, which limits compensation for expropriations based on the total area of the property, regardless of its specifications, location, or the construction that went into it. Those most at risk amid the latest plan are Palestinian refugees who have so-called “housing permits” and do not possess ownership deeds for their homes, as their houses are built on land belonging to the Syrian government, to be used by GAPAR. Homes listed under “housing permits” cover about one-third of Yarmouk’s land area, according to a human rights source who spoke to The Syria Report. While still officially referred to as a “camp,” Yarmouk has for many years been an urban district with permanent housing.

Yarmouk residents have not been allowed to return since they were displaced. Today, only around 100-150 families still live in the area. Some 3,000 families from the camp submitted a request to the governorate on February 3, 2019, which was recorded in the registry under No. 10215, demanding that they be allowed to return, and pledging to voluntarily assist in reconstruction. Authorities responded by saying that more time was needed to remove the rubble and landmines, and secure basic utilities.

However, the government’s excuses for barring residents from returning to the camp appear to be inaccurate, according to a human rights source in the camp who spoke to The Syria Report. In the two years since the government retook the camp, residents have noticed construction crews working in coordination with regime forces to demolish roofs and extract iron to sell as scrap. This has only added to the number of uninhabitable properties, and increased the areas classified as having been severely damaged by the war.

According to details of the new zoning plan published by pro-government newspaper Al-Watan, the camp takes up to 220 hectares of land, which is divided into three sections. The first, at 93 hectares, is severely damaged. The second, at 48 hectares, has suffered medium damage. And the third, which covers 79 hectares, has only light damage.

GAPAR, which had formed a special committee to study the zoning plan and offer notes, released a statement on July 19 claiming that the scale of destruction in the camp had been exaggerated, adding that no more than 20 percent of the properties it had expropriated for the camp’s use had been destroyed. However, GAPAR did not include any figures for the destruction in the camp as a whole.