Killings Surge in Syria Camp Housing ISIS Families

FILE - In this March 31, 2019 file, photo, women residents from former ISIS-held areas in Syria line up for aid supplies at Al-Hol camp in Hassakeh province, Syria. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, File)
FILE - In this March 31, 2019 file, photo, women residents from former ISIS-held areas in Syria line up for aid supplies at Al-Hol camp in Hassakeh province, Syria. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, File)
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Killings Surge in Syria Camp Housing ISIS Families

FILE - In this March 31, 2019 file, photo, women residents from former ISIS-held areas in Syria line up for aid supplies at Al-Hol camp in Hassakeh province, Syria. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, File)
FILE - In this March 31, 2019 file, photo, women residents from former ISIS-held areas in Syria line up for aid supplies at Al-Hol camp in Hassakeh province, Syria. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, File)

The deaths stacked up: a policeman shot dead with a pistol equipped with a silencer, a local official gunned down, his son wounded, an Iraqi man beheaded. In total, 20 men and women were killed last month in the sprawling camp in northeastern Syria housing families of the ISIS group.

The slayings in al-Hol camp — nearly triple the deaths in previous months — are largely believed to have been carried out by ISIS militants punishing perceived enemies and intimidating anyone who wavers from their extremist line, say Syrian Kurdish officials who run the camp but say they struggle to keep it under control.

The jump in violence has heightened calls for countries to repatriate their citizens languishing in the camp, home to some 62,000 people. Those repatriations have slowed dramatically because of the coronavirus epidemic, officials say. If left there, the thousands of children in the camp risk being radicalized, local and UN officials warn.

“Al-Hol will be the womb that will give birth to new generations of extremists,” said Abdullah Suleiman Ali, a Syrian researcher who focuses on militant groups, The Associated Press reported.

It has been nearly two years since the US-led coalition captured the last sliver of territory held by the ISIS group, ending their self-declared caliphate that covered large parts of Iraq and Syria. The brutal war took several years and left US-allied Kurdish authorities in control of eastern and northeast Syria, with a small presence of several hundred American forces still deployed there.

Since then, remaining ISIS militants have gone underground in the Syrian-Iraqi border region, continuing an insurgency. Though attacks in Syria are lower than they were in late 2019, ISIS sleeper cells continue to strike Syrian government troops, forces of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and civilian administrators.

Al-Hol houses the wives, widows, children and other family members of ISIS militants — more than 80% of its 62,000 residents are women and children. The majority are Iraqis and Syrians, but it includes some 10,000 people from 57 other countries, housed in a highly secured separate area known as the Annex. Many of them remain die-hard ISIS supporters.

The camp has long been chaotic, with the hardcore militants among its population enforcing their will on others and seeking to prevent them from cooperating with Kurdish authorities guarding it.

ISIS cells in Syria are in contact with residents of the camp and support them, said a senior Kurdish official Badran Cia Kurd. “Anyone who tries to reveal these contacts or stops dealing with ISIS is subjected to death,” he said.

The US-backed SDF tweeted last week that, backed by air surveillance from the coalition, they detained an ISIS family smuggler in the area of Hadadia near the camp.

“There are several reasons behind the increase of crime including attempts by ISIS members to impose their ideology in the camp against civilians who reject it,” said Ali, the researcher.

Of the 20 killings at al-Hol in January, at least five of the dead were female residents of the camp, according to the Rojava Information Center, an activist collective that tracks news in areas controlled by the SDF. All the victims were Syrian or Iraqi citizens, including a member of the local police force, and most were killed in their tents or shelters at night, RIC said.

Most of the victims were shot in the back of their heads at close range, according to RIC and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based opposition war monitor.

On Jan. 9, a gunman killed a policeman in the camp using a silencer-equipped pistol, then as other police chased him, he threw a hand grenade that seriously wounded the patrol commander, the Observatory said. The same day, an official with a local council dealing with Syrian civilians in the camp was shot to death and his son critically wounded.

In another case, an Iraqi camp resident was decapitated, his head found some distance from his body, RIC reported. It is believed he was killed on suspicion he was cooperating with authorities.

Kurdish security officials did not respond for questions from AP about the situation.

The immediate cause for the jump in killings was not known. In November, Kurdish authorities began an amnesty program for the 25,000 Syrian citizens in the camp, allowing them to leave. Some speculate that, since those taking amnesty must register and work with authorities, the program may have prompted slayings to keep residents in line. Many Syrians fear leaving the camp because they may face revenge attacks in their hometowns from those who suffered under ISIS rule.

Whatever the cause, the bloodshed points to the ISIS strength within the camp. The local civilian Kurdish authority known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria warned in late January that some sides are trying to revive ISIS and the authority cannot face this crisis on its own.

ISIS supporters in the camp carry out trials against residents suspected of opposing them and kill defendants, and authorities have uncovered several ISIS cells inside, it said.

“Contacts are ongoing between the camp and ISIS commanders outside who direct their members inside,” it said.

Some 27,000 non-Syrian children are stranded in al-Hol, including some 19,000 Iraqi children and 8,000 from other countries. On Jan. 30, UN counterterrorism chief Vladimir Voronkov urged home countries to repatriate the children, warning that they are at risk of radicalization.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought a drop in the already slow process of repatriation. Many countries have been reluctant to bring back their citizens, though France repatriated seven children in January and Britain one child in September.

Iraq has taken back very few. Repatriation by other countries dropped in 2020 to only 200 children, from 685 in 2019, according to Save the Children.

“These new figures show that before the outbreak of the virus, things were finally starting to move in the right direction,” said Save the Children’s Syria Response Director Sonia Khush.



Israel Takes War on Gaza to West Bank Camps

Jenin residents are seen during the funeral of a person who was killed during the Israeli military operation in Mat. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Jenin residents are seen during the funeral of a person who was killed during the Israeli military operation in Mat. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
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Israel Takes War on Gaza to West Bank Camps

Jenin residents are seen during the funeral of a person who was killed during the Israeli military operation in Mat. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Jenin residents are seen during the funeral of a person who was killed during the Israeli military operation in Mat. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

The morning of Tuesday, May 12 was supposed to be a normal day in the city of Jenin in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The city came to life after a night of calm that was not disrupted by Israeli raids or assassinations.

Employees went to work, students, teachers and professors headed to their schools and universities and stores were open for the day. However, the next minutes would become another bloody chapter in the sad city’s history.

No one who made their way through the streets of Jenin that morning knew that zero hour for an Israeli military operation had arrived. No one knew that the next few minutes would turn the streets and buildings into a warzone.

An Israeli special forces unit had infiltrated the city in a car carrying a Palestinian license plate. Emerging from the car were snipers who took position on the roofs of several buildings ahead of the operation.

A little after 8:00 am, the special unit and the snipers began opening fire at “anything that moved”, recalled an eyewitness. Seven people were killed immediately, including two students, a teacher and a surgeon.

Damaged houses are seen in Jenin camp following the Israeli operation in May. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Mahmoud

One of the students was 15-year-old Mahmoud Hamadna, who had left home with his twin brother to head to school near the Jenin camp. He had end of year exams that day. His father recalled to Asharq Al-Awsat that he immediately contacted his son as soon as he heard warning sirens ring in the camp. Mahmoud answered that he had safely arrived at school.

“I was relieved that they were well,” added the father. However, the sudden Israeli operation sparked confusion throughout the city. Unbeknownst to the father, the school authorities had asked the faculty, staff and students to return home because they feared an escalation, similar to what had happened in the past.

With a heavy heart, the father recalled the moment the brother returned home alone without Mahmoud. “I tried to contact him, but he didn’t answer his phone. I called him over 15 times with no answer,” he said. Meanwhile, Mahmoud had been making his way home on his bicycle. As soon as he left the school premises, he was shot by a sniper five times in the chest and head.

Still calling his phone, a person finally answered the father, and he was informed that Mahmoud had been taken to hospital. “I lost my mind when I found out that he was wounded,” said the father. He headed to hospital with the mother. It was dangerous journey with snipers shooting at their car.

“I arrived at the hospital thinking my son was injured, but I found out that he had been martyred. I didn't make it on time. He was dead,” added the father.

Long operation

As the sirens wailed, members of the Palestinian military brigades took their positions in the streets and fierce battles ensued with the Israeli forces. In the meantime, Israeli military vehicles advanced in the city, accompanied by bulldozers and drones flying overhead. The Israeli military spokesman announced that an expanded military operation was underway in Jenin to eliminate Palestinian fighters. Over a thousand soldiers were deployed. They occupied several homes and buildings and imposed a tight siege on the camp.

Fighting and explosions

An Israeli patrol roams the streets of Jenin in May. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

A team from Asharq Al-Awsat had been on the outskirts of Jenin on an unrelated task to observe the situation in the city as the war on Gaza raged on. Its arrival in Jenin coincided with the launch of the operation.

The sound of bullet fire and successive explosions filled the streets. Black smoke billowed over the city, while drones hovered overhead. Shops were shut and people sought the safety of their homes. Streets and alleyways became warzones between the Palestinian fighters and Israeli forces.

The army had besieged the camp, or what it called the “hornets' nest”, barring anyone from leaving or entering. It cut off electricity and communication lines, isolating the city from the world.

The Israeli forces also barred the entry of ambulances and the evacuation of the wounded, even opening fire at them. Journalists were also prevented from entering.

The operation went on for 48 hours. Once the Israeli forces withdrew, the Asharq Al-Awsat team was able to enter Jenin and assess the damage and destruction. Jenin is home to 12,000 people. Houses and shops were riddled with bullets, while others were razed to the ground.

The Israeli army had escalated its operations against vital infrastructure in Jenin city and its camp. The infrastructure has become a target so that pressure would grow on the armed factions, explained the locals.

A leading member of the Fatah movement, Jamal Haweel told Asharq Al-Awsat that Israel was seeking to use the destruction to weaken the support the armed factions enjoy in Jenin.

In 2002, the Israeli forces raided Jenin camp, seeking to occupy it. The greatest battle since 1967 ensued Around 1,200 homes were destroyed and dozens of people were killed, he recalled. Israel is playing a psychological game and trying to turn the people against the factions.

“The people, however, are aware that the resistance brings them dignity and freedom despite the destruction caused by the enemy,” he stressed.

Mounting death toll

The Israeli army had intensified its operations in Jenin and the West Bank since the eruption of the war on Gaza on October 7. It has carried out over 70 raids, killing over 142 Palestinians in Jenin – the greatest death in the West Bank where 540 people have been killed and 5,200 injured. The Israeli military has also arrested over 8,000 Palestinians.

Negotiations over a ceasefire in Gaza have not included the West Bank, raising serious concerns among the Palestinians that the Israelis have more escalation in store for them. These fears have been compounded by hardline Israeli ministers Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, who vowed to take the war on Gaza to the West Bank.

A masked Palestinian is seen in Jenin city during the Israeli operation in May. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

High accuracy

Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with fighters in Jenin as soon as Israel ended its 48-hour operation. One of their leaders remarked that this battle was different than others, saying the fighters showed “high tactics and accuracy”.

He revealed that the fighters were resorting now to ambushes and advanced explosive devices in combating the Israeli forces, sparking deep concern among Israeli military and security authorities. He added that not a single fighter was killed in the latest round of fighting. “The occupier failed in killing and wounding a single combatant,” he stated. This has forced Israel to change tactics and turn to special units and snipers and to use air cover during its raids.

Moreover, the fighter said the war in the camp is an extension to the war in Gaza. The confrontation with the Israeli army intensified after October 7, he added, revealing that some military units that had fought in Gaza were now fighting in Jenin.