While the eyes of the world were focused on the thousands of Palestinians trying to storm the Golan Heights on Friday, June 3 – “Naksa Day,” the day commemorating the defeat of the Arab armies in the Six Day War – scant attention was given to the developing drama inside the Yarmuk refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus.
Several youngsters from the camp were taking part in the attempt, and soon news started trickling in about the number of dead and wounded. People in the camp suddenly understood that they had been duped by Syrian leader Bashar Assad, who had chosen to buy with Palestinian blood an operation intended to draw attention away from his brutal handling of the country’s crisis.
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Identifying bodies and returning them to their families took time, and it was not until Monday that the nine victims from the camp could be laid to rest. By that time, anger was boiling over at what was perceived as the result of Assad’s cynical use of the Palestinian cause.
An estimated 100,000 Palestinians – some two-thirds of the Yarmuk camp population – took part in the mass funerals, chanting slogans against the Syrian president: “Ya Bashar, ya Bashar, where, where are you? They massacred us under your eyes, where, where is the Syrian army, where are you?” Syria is home to some of the more extremist Palestinian organizations – from Hamas, which has its headquarters in Damascus, to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), led by Ahmed Jibril.
Jibril himself came to the funeral with a number of assistants and the
leaders of several other extremist Palestinian organizations; however,
when he tried to make a speech praising Assad and blaming Israel for the
deaths, his voice was drowned by protests; he was asked to leave and
let the dead be buried in peace. He refused to move, so the crowd
started pelting his group with stones.
Soon the protest turned more violent, and protesters vented their anger on the PFLP-GC’s headquarters.
They burst into the offices and broke furniture before setting the place
on fire. Two guards were killed in the onslaught; Jibril’s security
officers opened fire, killing 14 protesters and wounding hundreds.
Throughout the rioting, the masses yelled, “The people want an end to
the factions” – that is, the many Palestinian groups active in Syria,
meddling in their lives and fighting among themselves for influence –
mimicking the call of the protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, “The
people want an end to the regime.”
What the refugees were saying was that they’d had enough of being
manipulated by the Syrian regime through the 10 extremist Palestinian
factions it supports and which do its bidding. Hamas chief Khaled
Mashaal rushed to the camp in an attempt to appease protesters, but he
was greeted by loud jeers and curses and was driven away.
Jibril is considered the most important of the leaders of the pro-Syrian
factions; it is a well known fact that he has been acting for the
Syrian government for the past 40 years. It transpired that he had been
the principal mover in the planning of the mass demonstrations on the
Golan on behalf of Assad, while, according to Arab media, it had been
clear from the first that they were doomed to failure since Israel would
not let its border be overrun. On Tuesday, the victims of the previous
day were laid to rest; the heads of the factions stayed prudently away.
Some Arab media are saying there are many in the camps who feel
solidarity with the Syrian protesters being massacred by the regime. In
any case, the violent protests in this camp probably explain why Assad
did not send more people to the Golan the following day and why his army
restored the roadblocks on the road leading to it, which had been
dismantled in advance of the Friday march to the border.
There are today 13 Palestinian refugee camps in Syria administered by
UNRWA; an estimated half a million people live there. Over the years,
infrastructures have been built or modernized. The inhabitants of the
camps enjoy full civil rights, including the right to work in academic
professions and governments offices, though they have not been granted
Syrian citizenship so as to perpetuate their refugee status vis à vis
In view of his present predicament, Assad has no desire to open a second
front with the Palestinians; they represent a political force that
there would be no point in turning against him. Should they decide to
join the protesters, it could be catastrophic. Even before the recent
Golan events, there was a feeling that the relations were turning sour.
A few weeks ago, Syrian authorities complained that Palestinians from
Al-Ramel camp in Lattakia had rioted, burning and otherwise destroying
public buildings. Palestinian factions immediately denied it, stressing
that Palestinians in Syria remained neutral and were not taking part in
the country’s internal affairs. It should also be remembered that there
is widespread speculation that Hamas is considering transferring its
headquarters to Qatar and opening offices in Cairo because of the
deterioration of the situation in Syria.
Assad will probably not try again this transparent ploy of using the
Palestinians to deflect attention from his sorry state – a ploy that was
roundly condemned by the United States and left a bitter taste in the
Arab world’s mouth.
At the same time, the leaders of the Palestinian factions are also in trouble.
They are afraid not only of clashes between the refugees and Assad’s
security forces, but also of the possible emergence of a new regime that
could curtail their privileges. According to press reports, these
leaders intend to meet soon and discuss the best ways not to further the
rift with the Syrian government.
The Palestinian leadership in Ramallah issued a measured condemnation
through its news agency, Wafa. The communiqué spoke of “a group of armed
men” from the PFLP-GC as being responsible for the crimes, and promised
an investigation; there was no reference to the situation in Syria,
Assad or Jibril.
So far, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has not seen fit
to face the camera and express clearly his support for the Palestinians
protesting Assad’s duplicity. Apparently because of the current
Palestinian confrontation with Israel and the looming showdown at the UN
General Assembly in September, the PA is unwilling to cross swords with
the Palestinian factions – let alone Hamas, with which it recently
signed a peace agreement. However, there has been strong condemnation in
the Palestinian press, as well as from some more junior members of
Fatah, who went as far as to ask that Jibril be expelled from the PLO.
Tarek al-Hamid, editor of the Londonbased Arab daily Asharq Alawsat,
summed up on June 8, under the headline “The common currency for
crises,” his take on the way Arab countries and Iran have exploited the
According to Hamid, Arab regimes “pay their debts” for internal or
external problems either by sacrificing Palestinians or by “writing
checks” – meaning exploiting the Palestinian problem while doing nothing
about it. He wondered why Assad had not sent Syrian citizens to the
Golan (the Golan being a Syrian problem), why Hezbollah had not taken
part in the demonstrations on Naksa Day, and why Hamas had not let the
people of Gaza demonstrate. He did not forget Iran, a country that
issues bombastic declarations in favor of the Palestinians and against
Israel – without doing anything – simply to meddle in the internal
affairs of Arab states.
The Palestinians, he wrote, have become the common currency used to pay
for the turmoil in the Arab world, and this state of affairs will go on
until a Palestinian leader stands up and proclaims, “Enough, stop
trafficking in Palestine and Palestinians!” – a not-toosubtle dig at
Arab countries and at Abbas, reminding them that it is high time to
solve the Palestinian issue pragmatically and stop using it to ensure
their own survival.
The writer is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden, and a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.