A fissure among Syrian Palestinians

Where does UNRWA come in, and where do the fragmented interests of Palestinian militant anti-Zionism fall?

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)
Wednesday, October 31, a host of articles were published in several international outlets featuring a binary offering of content. The paradox regards the question of just what the relations are between the Palestinians and the current Syrian civil war. Where does UNRWA (United Nations Refugee and Works Agency) come in, and where do the fragmented interests of Palestinian militant anti-Zionism fall? It was reported that on Tuesday there were clashes between rebels and pro-Assad regime Palestinians near the well-known Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in the area of southern Damascus. This is only one of myriad such incidents in this and other refugee camps. For example, 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 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 chairman Mahmoud Abbas condemned shelling of the refugee camp by 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 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 blanket 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 FSA 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 FSA fighters of abusing residents to fight Assad. Perhaps the way Assad himself has been accused of paying shepherds to pose as Palestinians and hurl Molotov cocktails at Israeli troops parked on the border in the Golan Heights, as they did in 2011.
A key reason that Assad – who accuses the FSA’s uprising of being a Zionist plot – cannot successfully sway all of Syria’s Palestinian refugees to fight is that many Palestinians empathize with the FSA on account of their being Sunnis.
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: “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.