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.”