A fissure among Syrian Palestinians

Clashes in Syrian refugee camps are putting the spotlight on the unusual plight of Palestinians in the war-torn regime.

A Palestinian refugee camp in Syria 370 (R) (photo credit: Khaled Al Hariri / Reuters)
A Palestinian refugee camp in Syria 370 (R)
(photo credit: Khaled Al Hariri / Reuters)
Last Tuesday, clashes broke out between rebels and pro-Assad regime Palestinians near the well-known Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in the area of southern Damascus. This isn't the first incident in refugee camps. On the morning of September 28, four Palestinians were killed and five wounded in Neirab, a refugee camp for Palestinians in the north of Syria.
“The deaths and injuries were caused by a shell which exploded in the main street of the camp.” reported the UNRWA.org. “Among those killed were two infant boys, brothers aged one and a half and three and a half years who were playing outside when the explosion occurred. Neirab camp, with a population of just under 22,000 Palestine refugees, is situated close to Aleppo airport in an area affected since June by continuous and increasingly intense armed conflict.”
One paradox to be found is that in August, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned shelling on the refugee camp by Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s pro regime forces. This then begs the question, why then would Yarmouk’s residents fight Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters?
Established in 1957, the UNRWA-supported Yarmouk is the largest concentration of Palestinians living in Syria. In June 2002, according to a source, there were 112,550 refugees living in the camp. Inside the refugee camp is found the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command (PFLP-GC).
According to one source, the loyalty of Yarmouk’s residents is a political crux to Assad, who sees himself as being a salient ally for Palestinian militants, wishing to make war with the Jewish state. Rumors are abound that Iranian backed Palestinian militants in Syria are in crouching position, ready to attack Israel.
There is one caveat however. In these facts hardly lie grounds to declare a blanketed support of Palestinians for the Assad regime. For instance, on the very same day that this story broke, it was reported by another news source that rebels with the Free Syrian Army had armed Palestinians to fight the pro-regime Palestinians of Yarmouk – “a move which could fuel spiraling intra-Palestinian violence.” according to Reuters.
But are things really so simple? Is it simply a bifurcation of the heart of the Palestinian refugees of Syria: those who support Assad and those who do not? The answer is no. Certainly, the closing of the Hamas headquarters in Damascus earlier this year has added a distinct mist to the vision.
The chief of the PFLP-GC is one Ahmed Jibril, who has been accused by Free Syrian Army fighters of abusing residents to fight Assad. Perhaps the way Assad has been accused of paying shepherds to pose as Palestinians and hurl Molotov cocktails at Israeli troops parked on the border at the Golan Heights, as they did in 2011.
A key reason that Assad – who accuses the Free Syrian Army’s uprising as a Zionist plot – cannot successfully sway all of Syria’s Palestinian refugees to fight in his centuries, is because many Palestinians have emphasized with the FSA on account of their being Sunni. Reuters also points out that “in any case” Palestinians have “been riven by factionalism for decades, their differences exacerbated by the 1975-1990 civil war in neighboring Lebanon.”
According to a blog post on the UNRWA website in September, after the incident at Neirab:
“The Agency renews its calls to the authorities to afford protection from the effects of armed conflict for Palestine refugees and other civilians across Syria, and to facilitate humanitarian access to the civilian populations in need of assistance.”
The text continues:
“[The] UNRWA deplores the tragic loss of life and is of the opinion that the deaths could have been avoided. The Agency repeats its profound concern regarding the destructive impact of the Syria conflict on Palestine refugees and other civilians, which it strongly deplores. To ensure the protection of civilians, UNRWA reiterates once more that all sides must refrain from conducting the conflict in civilian areas and must comply with their obligations under international law.”
Notwithstanding, it has hardly been taken into account what side Palestinians generally are on, with the United Nations largely calling for the immediate ousting of Assad and the dissolving of his regime.