Palestinians in Syria forced to pick sides

November 25, 2012

For decades, the Palestinians who fled to Syria after the Arab-Israeli wars were seen as loyal supporters of the ruling Assad family, which provided a safe and stable haven to them and their representatives.

But the bloody conflict inside Syria is now playing out among the country’s 500,000 Palestinians, in the form of shifting alliances and heavy fighting in the country’s largest refu­gee camp, known as Yarmouk, on the outskirts of Damascus.

At least 700 Palestinians across the country have been killed since the uprising began, according to opposition groups. As the violence ramps up, the Palestinian community is being forced to choose sides, adding another unpredictable element to a murky conflict.

“Some Palestinians have been part of the revolution from the beginning, and some groups have sided with the regime,” said Nadim Houry, the deputy Middle East director for Human Rights Watch. “But sometimes even when they’re not part of it, the fight comes to them.”

Palestinian refugees in Syria, in comparison with many countries in the region, are more integrated into society and have greater rights, such as the right to own property. As a result, the Assads have long touted themselves as regional leaders for the Palestinian cause.

So it was no small snub when some Palestinians supported the uprising and took up arms against the government. Opposition activists say there are units within the rebel Free Syrian Army made up entirely of Palestinian fighters.

There is also a sectarian dimension. Sunni Palestinians sympathize with the predominantly Sunni opposition in its fight against a Syrian government led by Alawites, who are an offshoot sect of Shiite Islam.

A split in Hamas

Within the Palestinian community, the group that best embodies the conflicting views is Hamas. This year, Hamas’s political leader, Khaled Meshal, expressed support for the Syrian opposition and moved his base to Qatar, a dramatic step for a group that had been receiving Syrian support for more than a decade.

“The regime supported us — that’s true. But the Syrian people have also supported us,” said the head of international relations for Hamas, Osama Hamdan, who is based in Beirut.

He added: “We as the Palestinian people are seeking to have our freedom, our right of self-determination. So we will not stand in a position which may be against the will of any nation or any people.”

But the leaders of Hamas’s military wing, which is largely based in the Gaza Strip, have taken a different stance, analysts say. In recent years they have received financial and military assistance as well as training from Iran, one of President Bashar al-Assad’s closest allies, and have remained supportive of the Syrian government.

The group’s difficult position on the Syrian uprising was evident in comments Meshal made at a news conference in Cairo on Wednesday. He thanked Iran for its support during the recent Israeli military operation targeting Gaza but noted that his praise came despite “disagreements on the situation in Syria.”

Syrian security services raided Meshal’s office in Damascus this month, according to a Hamas statement. But the fallout between Hamas and the Syrian government had surfaced earlier this year; in late June, Hamas official Kamal Ghanaja was assassinated in Damascus, and his body reportedly showed signs of torture.

Many activists say the killing was carried out by Syrian security services in retaliation for the group’s shifting allegiances.

New political tensions

Other Palestinian groups have also been targeted. At least half a dozen commanders from the Palestine Liberation Army, an armed group that has been folded into the Syrian military, were assassinated this summer. There are conflicting accounts about whether they were targeted because of their loyalty to the Syrian government or because of their refusal to follow orders in taking part in the crackdown.

Yarmouk, home to about 150,000 Palestinians, has been ground zero for clashes among various Palestinian factions and between Palestinian fighters and the Free Syrian Army.

The Free Syrian Army and the Syrian military also have fought in the neighborhoods around Yarmouk, and on occasion Syrians have fled into the camp to escape the fighting.

The Syrian government, for its part, has turned to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, a radical Palestinian group, to clamp down on any unrest in Yarmouk. In recent weeks, heavy clashes have broken out between the group and the rebels in and around the camp. And on Sunday, rebels took control of a PFLP-GC base on the outskirts of Damascus after heavy fighting.

“The General Command is almost a battalion of the Syrian army, pretending to protect the Palestinian camps but only sending their troops to attack the citizens and clashing with the Free Syrian Army,” said Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi, a 24-year-old Palestinian activist who lives in Yarmouk and supports the Syrian uprising. “They even physically attacked activists and delivered them to state security.”

The Syrian military has shelled the camp repeatedly while clashing with rebel fighters in the neighborhoods near it. At least 50 Palestinians were killed in Yarmouk in the first two weeks of November.

While Yarmouk has been the hardest hit, half a dozen other Palestinian camps in the country have faced similar attacks, spurring thousands of Palestinians to flee to neighboring countries.

Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, roughly 10,000 Palestinians have crossed the border to Lebanon, already home to some 450,000 Palestinian refugees, and 1,600 have fled to Jordan, according to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency.

Governments in the region are concerned that the new refugees might inflame political tensions in their own countries. This is especially true in Lebanon, where rival political factions supporting the Syrian government and opposition have clashed repeatedly in recent months. So far, there have been no major incidents of violence.

“There is an effort by the Palestinian leadership to keep the Palestinians as much as possible distanced from what is happening, in an effort to protect them,” said Hoda Samra, a spokeswoman for the U.N. agency in Lebanon.

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