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Syrian conflict makes Palestinians into both refugees and combatants

When the uprising against the Assad regime began, Syria's half-million-strong Palestinian population was reluctant to join in. Now, some have fled, while others have joined in the fight.

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The Palestinians have a tragic history of becoming embroiled in the region’s conflicts. Some Lebanese continue to blame the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) for catalyzing the 1975-1990 civil war through its armed presence, which threatened to upset the delicate Christian-Muslim sectarian balance in the country.  Today, Lebanon’s estimated 350,000 Palestinians are confined to 12 refugee camps and denied many basic services.

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In 1991, Kuwait expelled almost all its Palestinian residents, who comprised about 30 percent of the state’s population. The expulsion was in response to then PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s decision to support former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Iraq’s Palestinian population, which was treated relatively well under President Hussein, was persecuted after the 2003 US-led invasion with thousands displaced or murdered in the ensuing sectarian bloodshed. Many of them continue to live in squalid refugee camps along the Jordan-Iraq border.

'Conditions are difficult'

Hassan lives in a tiny house belonging to his sister-in-law deep inside Bourj ash-Shemali camp, which he shares with five other families.

“There are three bedrooms only but 25 people living here,” he says. “We are facing very hard conditions. Nobody is doing anything for us. We don’t know anyone here. The people have been very kind to us but there’s not much they can do. They are already poor.”

In another house a little further down a narrow gloomy passageway are three blind women who traveled from the Palestinian camp of Jeramana, 10 miles southeast of Damascus.

“The situation was getting worse day by day. We had to escape the war, the shelling,” says Fatmeh al-Hassan sitting in an empty room, staring sightlessly at the floor. Samira, her sister, lies beneath a blanket on the floor, her face yellowed. Fatmeh says she has jaundice.

“She needs an operation for her liver. But we have no money to pay for it and no one is providing any help for us,” says Fatmeh.

Fatmeh and her sisters are among 125 families who have moved into Bourj ash-Shamali, according to Mahmoud Jumaa, the manager of Beit Atfal as-Sammoud, a local charity that caters to the needs of the Palestinians.

“We are trying to provide help for these families,” he says. “We know what it’s like to be forced to leave your home and we’re hospitable people so it’s natural for us to take people in. But conditions in the camp are difficult in the first place. Now we are asking resident families to host an additional family when they might only have two rooms.”

'Our Syrian brothers'

When the uprising against the Assad regime began in March last year with a series of peaceful demonstrations, Syria’s Palestinian population was reluctant to join in. Many Palestinians felt sympathy toward the regime because of its long-standing public support for the Palestinian cause.

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