Photo: A Palestinian demonstrator holds the Syrian opposition flag at a protest
against Syria’s President Bashar Assad in the central Gaza Strip in
late June. (Reuters/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa, File)
On July 14, thousands of Palestinian refugees marched in a funeral procession for 11 unarmed protesters shot dead by Syrian security forces in the al-Yarmouk refugee camp. Raucous and seething with rage, mourners chanted for Syria and Palestine, called for the downfall of Bashar Assad’s regime, and sang for freedom.
Whether this burgeoning civil disobedience movement will grow into an open, durable rebellion remains to be seen, but the significance and the potential influence of the latest wave of protests that has swept Syria’s largest Palestinian camp cannot be overlooked.
As the Syrian uprising gathered momentum and the Syrian regime escalated its repression against what started out as a peaceful revolt, concerns have emerged about the impact of the uprising on Palestinian refugees in Syria, who make up just over 2 percent of Syria’s total population.
The Palestinian political elite in Syria have been divided. Some factions have desperately attempted to appear neutral, distancing themselves from the unrest. Others, such as Ahmad Jibril’s PFLP-GC, Fatah al-Intifada, and the Palestinian-Baathist militia al-Sa’iqa, have actively supported the regime, bolstering its propaganda campaigns and crushing civil dissent inside the camps.
In stark contrast to the moribund, aging political leadership, Palestinian-Syrian youth activists, who prior to the eruption of the uprising had focused their activism on Palestine, have participated in the uprising since the very beginning as demonstrators; organizers of aid and relief work for wounded and internally-displaced Syrians; or as citizen journalists, photographers and media activists. The hub of their activism, however, remained outside the camps for most of the uprising.
Never were the tensions among Syria’s Palestinians as discernible as during the aftermath of last year’s Naksa Day protests on June 5, when dozens of unarmed Palestinians were killed by the Israeli occupation army in the occupied Golan Heights border area. Yarmouk inhabitants and martyrs’ families set the PFLP-GC building ablaze in a strong denunciation of the faction’s role in mobilizing to instigate the youths to march back home without any protection despite the anticipated deadly reaction by the Israeli army.
The faction engaged in a pathetically naked attempt to deflect attention from the regime’s crackdown. Several Palestinians were killed in the clashes that ensued between Yarmouk residents and armed PFLP-GC gunmen following the funeral. However, with the exception of the Syrian navy’s attack on the al-Raml refugee camp last summer and the occasional Syrian army shelling on refugee camps in Daraa, Hama and Homs, the situation in the refugee camps remained cautiously quiet.
Intifada in the camps
Since February, the al-Yarmouk camp has regularly held protests in solidarity with the besieged Syrian cities and towns. It participated in the Damascus general strike on May 29, 2012. The protests would normally pass quietly without being attacked by Syrian security forces.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was the abduction and then killing of 13 Palestinian Liberation Army fighters from the Nayrab refugee camp in Aleppo. Though the identity of the killers is unknown, the killings sparked a large protest in Yarmouk on July 12, and an even larger protest the next day. Buoyant chants of “God bless the Free Syrian Army”, “From Syria to Palestine, one people not two”, and “Long live Syria and down with Assad” echoed in the camp’s streets. The Syrian army opened fire at protesters and for the first time, clashes between the regime army and the FSA broke out inside the camp, marking a significant tipping point. The Local Coordination Committee of Yarmouk camp called for mass protests and a general strike to protest the killings.
Jihad Makdissi, the spokesman of the Syrian Foreign Ministry, described Palestinians in Syria as “guests” and cynically told them to “leave Syria for one of the Arab democracies” if they misbehave. Makdissi’s Facebook statement, which he later deleted, triggered outrage and highlighted the complicated nature of Palestinian participation in the uprising.
“We always warned against pushing the camp into the uprising, but no one listened,” tweeted an anti-Assad Yarmouk resident following the massacre. The International Committee of the Red Cross recently described the situation in Syria as a civil war. Thus, concerns of being “stuck” in the middle of a civil war or intervening in “internal” affairs are perfectly legitimate and understandable. Active opposition to the Syrian regime poses serious risks to Palestinian refugees.
The most imminent scenario is that the general violence that has marred the country for the last 16 months would spill over to the camps. Despite their under-privileged status as stateless refugees, Palestinians in refugee camps have been relatively safer than neighboring Syrian districts in besieged cities, leading several internally displaced families to seek asylum in the Palestinian camps. Meanwhile, the regime has mostly avoided launching direct attacks on refugee camps, particularly Yarmouk, in order not to alienate an already divided population.
However, as shown by the attack on unarmed protesters in Yarmouk, the Syrian regime has not backed down on attacking Palestinian refugees, dare they “misbehave.”
The situation could further deteriorate in the event of clashes between the regime army and armed opposition fighters. Yarmouk camp is a strategically important area that borders Midan, Tadamun, and al-Hajar al-Aswad — Damascene neighborhoods that have seen intense clashes between the army and the FSA in the last few days. This raises the possibility that the camp could turn into a niche area of battle. A less likely – but perhaps more dangerous – scenario is an intra-Palestinian collision between regime loyalists and opponents. The clashes that followed the Naksa Day protests last year served to expose the tensions enveloping the Palestinian community in Syria; the current unrest could foment them.
The searing memories of the destruction of Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in north Lebanon are still haunting and vivid five years on; the fears of a similar scenario taking place in Syria are not completely far-fetched despite the glaring differences between the two situations.
The myth of neutrality
In spite of the aforementioned perils, the participation of Palestinian-Syrian youth in the uprising seems inevitable and unavoidable. Contrary to Palestinian refugees in neighboring Lebanon who are dehumanized and denied basic rights, Palestinians in Syria have long enjoyed rights equal to those of Syrian citizens in most respects, including health, education and employment. Equality is not a favor that the Assad family bestowed upon Palestinians: Law 60, which grants Palestinian refugees near equality with Syrian nationals, was passed in 1956 by a democratically elected parliament under the leadership of the widely admired former president, Shoukri al-Quwatli. Though strongly bound to the Palestinian cause, many Palestinians in Syria, particularly second- and third-generation refugees, have assimilated into Syrian society.
So, how all of a sudden, have Palestinians become “outsiders” who should refrain from intervening in “internal” Syrian affairs?
The irony is especially striking since the Syrian regime has long crowned itself as the guardian of the Palestinian cause and Pan-Arabism. Moreover, it has – since the uprising – used the Palestinian cause to whitewash its crimes and defend the indefensible. Another question that begs to be asked is: What are ‘internal’ Syrian affairs, and what constitutes an intrusion in those affairs? Should Palestinians cease providing shelter and aid for wounded and displaced Syrians in the name of respecting “internal” affairs? Should they abstain from protesting against Assad’s military tyranny in the name of respecting Syria’s sovereignty? Not only are the boundaries extremely vague, neutrality in the Syrian crisis is a myth.
Additionally, it is impossible to expect Palestinians who were born, raised, educated in Syria – who have lived their entire lives there – to sit on the fence. It is also a false dichotomy to think that a sense of belonging to Syria negates the Palestinian identity and roots of refugees, who have a sacred, inalienable right of return to Palestine. Moreover, to claim that they are “used by both sides” is a profound insult to the Palestinians who freely chose to protest against the Syrian regime. Such a claim suggests that anti-regime Palestinians have no free will or autonomy. The Palestinian population in Syria is diverse and no one, including prominent Palestinian intellectuals and activists outside Syria, has the right to speak in their name and decide for them.
When one considers all the complexities and uncertainty plaguing the situation in Syria, staying on the sidelines no longer appears to be a feasible option.
It is both painfully ironic and incredibly moving that Yarmouk, built to host ethnically cleansed Palestinians, has now turned into a safe haven for Syrians fleeing the shelling on Tadamon and Midan; that UNRWA schools became shelters in the last few days; and that Palestinian residents of the camp have donated mattresses, meals and medicine for their wounded Syrian neighbors. These acts of solidarity have been beacons of inspiration amid the endless cycle of violence and grief that has descended upon Syria.