Arab Affairs: The revolt at Yarmuk refugee camp

"Ya Bashar, ya Bashar, where, where are you? They massacred us under your eyes, where, where is the Syrian army, where are you?"

naksa day clashes_311 reuters (photo credit: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)
naksa day clashes_311 reuters
(photo credit: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)
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 Israel.
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 Palestinian problem.
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.