As the uprising in Syria has developed into an armed insurrection — and as the regime has shifted its initial security response to the uprising to a full-scale military one — the specter of the mayhem and destruction that engulfed Iraq following the US invasion in 2003 today haunts the country.
One of the threats looming over Syria is an impending civil war — if one has not already begun — spelling disaster for its people and the people of the region as a whole. During these times of uncertainty what is certain is that it is the Syrian people and their demands for a better future that continue to be the real losers of the entanglement of their aspirations with conflicting regional and international geopolitical interests.
Against this changing backdrop, Syria is also home to half a million Palestinians who enjoy unparalleled rights compared to Palestinian refugees in other Arab states. The Syrian state granted these rights seven years before the assumption of power by the ruling Baath Party. The reality of the Palestinians in Syria enjoying these rights, coupled with the place of Palestine in the regime’s Arab nationalist ideology and rhetoric, have helped shore up the regime’s Arab nationalist credentials.
These credentials not only include the invocation of the Palestinian cause and material support for Hamas and Hizballah, but also its treatment of Palestinians in the country as “Arab brethren until the return.”
The latter could play a dangerous role in a backlash against the community in the event of the descent of the country into the abyss of civil war. In the worst-case scenario, the fate of the Palestinians in Syria could echo some facets of the fate of the approximately 30,000 Palestinian refugees from Iraq following the US occupation of that country, including loss of permanent refugee status and collective persecution.
At the same time, these credentials are not without contradictions. These stem from what the dissident Syrian intellectual and writer Michel Kilo noted as the incongruity of the regime’s internal and external nationalist interests and policies. The contradictions stemming from this incongruity, however, have been latent and less pronounced for the young refugees. They not only comprise the majority of the Palestinian population, but they have also had no direct experiences of the manifestation of these contradictions such as during the clashes between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Syrian regime in Lebanon.
Yet it may ironically be this history and incongruity, as most recently accentuated precisely because of the crises, along with the community’s relative strength in numbers, which could see the Palestinians weather the worst-case scenario storm of a violent transition in Syria.
Marches of return put spotlight on Palestinian refugees
The Palestinians in Syria were pushed into the limelight when, in May 2011, on the 63rd anniversary of the Nakba — the systematic destruction of Palestinian society and expulsion of Palestinians during the establishment of the State of Israel — young refugees took part in a march to historic Palestine.
Dubbed “The Refugees’ Revolution,” this march was a refugee youth initiative inspired by the revolutionary fervor that blew from Tunisia to Egypt and further afield following the ousting of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali from power in Tunisia. The day saw unprecedented coordinated regional attempts by refugees to march to their families’ homes and lands controlled by the state of Israel. Unlike refugee youth elsewhere, the Palestinian and Syrian youth on the border with the occupied Golan Heights crossed and entered the Israeli-occupied Syrian town of Majdal Shams. One young Syria-born Palestinian man, Hassan Hijazi, travelled from Majdal Shams to his family’s home in Jaffa and defiantly made his symbolic act of return public on Israeli television.
The Israeli army was quick to blame Iran, Hamas and Hizballah, and the Americans were as quick to decry Syria’s “incitement.” Both conveniently overlooked the fact that, although the march could not have taken place without the state’s approval, it was organized by young refugees, some of whom paid the ultimate price of their lives for their initiative.
Three weeks later, when an attempt was made to repeat the event on the 44th anniversary of the Naksa — the 1967 Israeli occupation of the remainder of Palestine then under Jordanian rule, the Syrian Golan Heights and the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula — the Israeli army outdid itself in killing even more unarmed demonstrators than the first time around, with some reports of at least 23 dead.
In an interview with Al Jazeera English, Israeli government spokesperson and chief propagandist Mark Regev justified the killings on security grounds. He accused the refugees of constituting a “mob” of “enemy nationals” and armed Israeli soldiers as therefore entitled to the “defense” of illegally-occupied Syrian territory against these “violent” incursions (“Violence marks ‘Naksa’ in Golan Heights”).
Following the funeral processions for those who lost their lives during the Naksa Day march, a number of conflicting narratives emerged around the shooting and killing of “angry mourners” or “zealots” at the hand of the old time regime-backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) splinter group the PFLP-General Command (PFLP-GC) headquarters’ guards.
This took place in Yarmouk camp, a Damascus suburb that is home to a third of the country’s Palestinians, as well as poorer Syrians. These shootings reportedly followed the confrontations that began during the funeral processions by “angry mourners” or “zealots” who, according to eyewitnesses, confronted factional leaders in their midst about their involvement in the marches. They later surrounded the PFLP-GC’s headquarters, where the shootings took place, setting the building on fire.
In a press conference, PFLP-GC leader Ahmad Jibril denied responsibility for the shootings, arguing that the PFLP-GC lost three guards during the attack on their headquarters, while only one attacker and a bystander were shot. Those who descended on the faction’s headquarters, Jibril claimed, were stirred up by Saudi Arabia and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, among other agent provocateurs, in order to forcefully drag the Palestinians in Syria into the ongoing events in the country. He also denied his faction’s involvement in organizing the buses that took the youth to the border on the day of the march.
Whatever the truth of what happened in Yarmouk camp, at face value the shootings seem to corroborate the problematic Israeli and American narrative of Palestinian refugee youths as instrumentalized puppets, regardless of whether it was angry mourners or mobs of zealots who descended on the PFLP-GC headquarters.
However, when the young refugees’ own political will is taken into account, the events at the PFLP-GC headquarters could also be read as an expression of popular anger at a self-interested attempt to hijack and capitalize on a youth-initiated event by the Damascus-based factions.
Thus, while the Israeli and American framing of events served to deny the young Palestinians as third- and fourth-generation refugees and as willful claimants of a legally-enshrined right of return to their lands, what the killings on the border and the shootings in Yarmouk definitively underscored were the conflicting interests of all the parties involved in the marches: the regime, the factions and the youth.
Palestinians in Syria, alone and unrepresented
Like the conflicting reports surrounding the shootings in Yarmouk, there have been conflicting reports about the extent of Palestinian involvement in the events in Syria. As early as March 2011, a report circulated in the Syrian al-Watan newspaper — a “private” newspaper owned by Rami Makhlouf, the cousin of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — about “extremist Palestinians” in Deraa, the southern town where the uprising began, who sabotaged the town through vandalism, rioting, looting and acts of arson.
This report also carried a condemnation — and hence admission — of Palestinian involvement by a “senior” Palestinian source in Damascus, denied and contradicted a day later in the same newspaper by a member of the PFLP-GC’s political bureau. During the same week, in an interview with BBC Arabic, al-Assad’s advisor Buthayna Sha’ban pointed the finger at, among others, people from “a camp” who descended on the coastal town of Latakia and started burning and vandalizing shops, killing two security members and a demonstrator.
Jibril was quick to deny this alleged Palestinian involvement to al-Watan, noting that the official confusion stemmed from the fact that Latakia camp is adjacent to an area which houses Idlib governorate and other rural-urban migrants, the true culprits. This confusion, as his statement went, was similar to that around identifying the true perpetrators behind the Deraa rioting. The Deraa rioters, as it later transpired according to Jibril, were not Palestinians, but from the area adjacent to Deraa camp, which houses internally displaced Syrians from the Golan.
Internally displaced Syrian “sources” also denied their involvement to the same newspaper as early as March. Complicating matters further, while Jibril was eager to disassociate Palestinians from the early finger pointing, the coalition of Damascus-based factions, known as the Palestinian Powers’ Alliance, including Jibril’s PFLP-GC, were also quick to deny the press statement by UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees, that noted reports of heavy gunfire into Latakia camp in August 2011.
If a mere water stream separates the Palestinians from the rural-urban migrants living adjacent to Latakia camp in al-Raml neighborhood, as Jibril’s March response to Sha’ban’s claims, then this early demarcation raises one important question for members of the Powers’ Alliance: How could heavy artillery discern this water stream five months later?
This question is especially relevant given the response of the Director of the General Authority for Palestinian Arab Refugees, the highest state body responsible for Palestinians in Syria, to UNRWA’s statement on the events surrounding Latakia camp. He not only denied the statement, but he also confirmed that “the issue” that was “tackled” took place in “the camp’s neighboring area” rather than in the camp itself.
At the same time, Ramallah pundits close to the Palestinian Authority also joined the chorus surrounding the events in Latakia to suggest that the regime had indeed targeted Palestinians on the basis of their national identity. One went as far as invoking memories of the “war of the camps” — a phase in the Lebanese civil war that saw the Syrian regime and its Lebanese allies lay siege and wage a war on Fatah’s resurgence in the Palestinian camps of Lebanon — a claim which is as equally obfuscating as the Powers’ Alliance response to UNRWA.
This is because it overlooks the reality of the ethnically heterogeneous and open spaces that are Palestinian camps in Syria — often housing poorer Syrians at their edges and blurring into adjacent areas — and thus from the scale of the events in a town that was reported to have been subject to heavy gunfire and that also happens to be home to a Palestinian refugee camp.
Such polarized narratives on the Palestinians in Syria by those who claim to represent their interests both in and outside of the country underscore these self-appointed spokespersons’ divergent interests. They also emphasize just how alone and unrepresented the Palestinians in Syria really are during these very testing times.
The contradictory and polarized narratives on Palestinians in Syria, like everything else emerging from, and pertaining to the country, tell us nothing about the real and material ongoing repercussions on the people of the two camps and the surrounding areas. What statements and press conferences by members of the Powers’ Alliance in Syria over the past year do tell us, when stripped of all the rhetoric, is the factions’ desire for and emphasis on the Palestinians and their camps’ political neutrality, underscoring the dangers of embroiling them in the events (and often speaking of hidden interests which would like to do just that).
UNRWA’s statements over the past year, on the other hand, paint a consistent picture of Palestinian camps and the surrounding areas where they also live as affected by the crackdowns on their respective towns, primarily through its suspension of relief services in May 2011 to Deraa, surrounding villages and Homs, as well as the agency’s inability to access Latakia in August 2011. The agency spokespersons have also consistently emphasized the potential catastrophe that can befall the Palestinians should they become embroiled in the events in one way or another, which in the worst-case scenario, could lead to their displacement yet again.
Hamas has also been extremely consistent until its recent departure from the country, albeit in a different respect. The Damascus-based leadership maintained a position of strict silence on Syria, until Khaled Meshaal’s late December 2011 Al Jazeera Arabic interview. In that interview, he noted that Hamas would have liked to see the regime combine reform at home while maintaining its support for resistance, and that Hamas is both loyal to the regime for its support over the years as well as to the Syrian people who embraced the movement.
This interview, followed by the departure of the movement’s leadership and the nod to the uprising by Hamas’s Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in a speech at Cairo’s al-Azhar Mosque in February 2012, has come amidst shifts internal and external to the movement that have unfolded in view of the changes to the political map of the Arab world post-revolution.
This saga of Palestinian national politics has also unfolded far away from the daily interests and real dangers facing the Palestinians in Syria, whose presence in the country predates that of Hamas by about five decades. These interest and dangers include not only the threat of secondary displacement, but also the more immediate increasing economic hardships that have resulted from the sanctions and the situation in the country, translating into rampant inflation, soaring prices and the ruin of small business owners.
Uncertain present and future
As Damascus and its surrounding areas, where three-quarters of the Palestinians in the country live , was generally spared the upheaval until recently, so too were the camps and the Palestinian gatherings in the capital and its surroundings. However, this has begun to change for the areas that constitute the Damascus and Damascus countryside governorates, affecting all residents of these areas. Yarmouk has generally been spared, even though Palestinians are today a minority in the camp itself, while the areas adjacent to Yarmouk have been tense.
Videos of contentious pro- and anti-regime demonstrations have been circulating since at least last summer, with more as of late January 2012. Some were followed by the denial of Palestinian involvement in al-Watan that ran the earlier conflicting reports about Palestinian involvement in the early demonstrations in Deraa and Latakia. Instead, the contentious demonstrations were attributed to Syrians — purportedly from the camp’s edges, adjacent areas and further afield — by Palestinian anonymous sources.
In March, a car exploded in one of the quietest thoroughfares of the camp on the same day that two bombs ripped through downtown Damascus, killing those inside the car. In yet more ominous developments, there have been reports of the mysterious killings of Palestine Liberation Army cadres of various ranks — a brigade of the Syrian army in which all Palestinian men in Syria over the age of eighteen are required to carry out military service — and the killing this week of all sixteen PLA soldiers from Neirab camp in Aleppo and their driver who were kidnapped on a road near Idlib some two weeks ago.
In addition, the “kidnapping” and “release” of a former Hamas official two days later by “unknown” kidnappers in Damascus received much less attention than the recent death of Kamal Ghanaja, a Hamas military cadre, in his home in Damascus. This is unsurprising given that Ghanaja, like Mahmoud al-Mabhouh who was assassinated in Dubai some two and a half years ago, was unknown beyond a small circle of confidants, and that the nature of the attack was initially reported as an assassination, and included reports of the stealing of files and the burning of Ghanaja’s home following his assassination. While Hamas announced that it will conduct its own investigation into the circumstances surrounding Ghanaja’s death, anonymous sources purportedly from the movement have come forward claiming that his death was an accident, raising even more questions about what exactly took place.
Ghanaja’s death also overshadowed the shelling of Deraa camp, with reports of at least four dead, and the earlier attack on Neirab camp by armed assailants that left at least another three dead. While the PFLP-GC issued a statement on the attack on Neirab camp, blaming “armed terrorist groups,” the shelling of Deraa camp did not receive a mention. What these latest rounds of events tell us is that the fictive boundaries between Palestinians in Syria and the unrest are just that, becoming increasingly more difficult to maintain.
As the situation on the ground continues to change, the fate of the Palestinians in the country, like the fate of Syrians and the country as a whole, remains uncertain. However, unlike their Syrian counterparts, Palestinians are refugees with nowhere to go in the event of the further deterioration of the turmoil in Syria.
Recent reports of Jordan looking into a buffer zone on its border with Syria for Palestinians after 17 crossed the border paints a troubling picture of what may come. One Jordanian Member of Parliament described Bashabsha camp in April, home to Palestinian refugees from Syria, as more of a “detention” than a refugee camp, contrasting his government’s treatment of Palestinians with the hospitality granted to the estimated 95,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan.
Furthermore, Human Rights Watch’s latest report highlights an unspoken shift in the Jordanian government’s policy on Palestinians arriving from Syria that has taken place since. Those crossing irregularly do not only face the threat of forced return, but those unable to find a Jordanian “guarantor” are now indefinitely detained in yet another holding center, “Cyber City,” a walled complex, which like Bashabsha, is also near the northern border town of al-Ramtha.
Another Arab state closing its doors in the face of Palestinians seeking yet another place of refuge has too many precedents. If this reading of the place of Palestinians in the events in Syria over the past year tells us anything, it is that beyond rhetoric, during times of turmoil and upheaval in Arab states, Palestinian refugees find themselves all alone and in a particularly precarious position yet again.
This precariousness ultimately stems from the continued lack of recognition and restitution for their expulsion from Palestine during the establishment of the State of Israel and the Palestinians’ consequent six-decade old and ongoing statelessness.
An earlier extended version of this article first appeared under the title “A Year On: The Palestinians in Syria” in the Syrian Studies Association Newsletter
Anaheed Al-Hardan is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry in Berlin, Germany, where she is writing a book on memories of the 1948 Nakba in the Palestinian refugee community in Syria.
This article was originally published by Electronic Intifada.