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.

Hussein Malla/AP
A Free Syrian Army soldier (r.) looks towards a mirror which helps him see Syrian troops on the other side, as he takes his position with his comrade during fighting, at the old city of Aleppo city, Syria, Monday Sept. 24.

Omar Hassan was just three years old when he and his family were forced to leave their home in northern Palestine during the creation of Israel, making a home as stateless refugees in a camp in Syria. Now, six decades on, Mr. Hassan is on the move again, fleeing the violence that has engulfed his neighborhood in Sitt Zeynab outside Damascus for the cramped but peaceful conditions of the Bourj ash-Shemali Palestinian refugee camp in south Lebanon.

“In Sitt Zeynab, we had no problems until two months ago, then life became unbearable with a lot of shelling and fighting,” says Hassan, an employee of an airline company in Syria. “Bombs were falling just 150 meters from my home.”

Hassan's plight illustrates how the estimated 500,000 Palestinian refugees living in Syria and the various political factions that represent them have been sucked into the vortex of Syria’s 18-month war – and how they have responded in different ways.

A tragic history

Hamas, a Sunni militant Islamist movement with links to the Muslim Brotherhood, has cautiously distanced itself from the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, previously a core ally. Although Hamas still keeps an office in Damascus, Khaled Meshaal, the head of the movement’s politburo, abandoned the Syrian capital in January for Qatar, a chief backer of the Syrian opposition to the Assad regime.

On the other hand, the Assad regime continues to enjoy the support of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), a faction that has long been backed by Damascus and whose militants are fighting alongside government forces and the loyalist Shabiha militia.

But most Palestinians remain wary of taking sides in a conflict that has left 23,000 people dead since March last year, according to activists, and looks set to worsen even further in the months ahead.

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.

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.

But in June 2011, 23 Palestinians were shot dead by Israeli troops in the Golan Heights during an unprecedented demonstration to commemorate Israel’s seizure and occupation of the strategic plateau in 1967. During the subsequent funerals at the Yarmouk refugee camp, clashes broke out when angry mourners turned upon the PFLP-GC, which they accused of sacrificing Palestinian youths to deflect attention from the uprising. The PFLP-GC opened fire on the crowd, killing at least 14 people.

The PFLP-GC makes no apology for standing beside Mr. Assad, even though its former ally Hamas has moved away. In July, Ahmad Jibril, the aging leader of the PFLP-GC, declared that his faction would fight alongside the Syrian regime, Iran, and the militant Shiite Hezbollah if Syria was attacked by foreign forces.

“We will take to the streets and fight on behalf of all those with honor and our Syrian bothers,” he said.

According to one veteran PFLP-GC militant, the faction already is fighting the armed Syrian opposition on all the main battlefronts such as Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo.

“Ahmad Jibril will stay with Bashar until the end. The regime is counting on us because we have a lot of experience of this kind of fighting. The Syrian army, the General Command, the Shabiha, and Hezbollah are one team,” says Abu Khalil, who fought for the PFLP-GC from the late 1970s, including during Lebanon’s civil war, and with Libyan troops against Chad in the 1980s, when Col. Muammar Qaddafi financially and logistically supported the faction.

Still, there has been dissent even within such the staunchly loyal PFLP-GC. The PFLP-GC branch in Ramallah in the Palestinian territories has criticized Mr. Jibril’s support for the Assad regime. Abu Khalil admitted that some 20 PFLP-GC militants were executed in August in the Yarmouk camp for refusing to fight the Syrian opposition. Additionally, a new field commander has been appointed to head the PFLP-GC deployed in Lebanon.

“He is a tough stubborn man who has no mercy. This is who they need now. This war in Syria will go on for many years,” says the gaunt, shaven-headed militant.

Having retired some years ago, Abu Khalil admits that the PFLP-GC leadership has asked him to return to active duty.

“They need my experience. I will fight and train others to fight,” he says.

Will he go?

“Why not. There’s nothing for me in Lebanon anyway and all I know is how to fight,” he says.

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