Statements by Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi that Palestinian refugees in Syria are guests “who lack manners”, when considered with those of Buthaina Shaaban, a presidential adviser, who accuses Palestinians in a refugee camp in Lattakia of being behind the violence in their area, are part of an attempt to play down the national nature of the Syrian revolution. Indeed, a number of pro-regime groups have pointed at the Palestinian refugees as the source of the violent unrest in the country.
In reality, refugee camps have been relatively quiet, with none of the demonstrations which have been seen in other places across Syria. While demonstrators roamed the streets of Alhajar Alaswad south of Damascus, they did not spread to Yarmouk refugee camp or to any of the other five Palestinian camps in the city. The same is true of the camps in Aleppo and other cities, in what can be described as an understanding by the Syrian Revolutionaries that the refugee camps have their own specific context. The refugees themselves are aware of what is happening and why; they have suffered under the Asad regime along with the Syrian people. They know that Fatah and Syrian intervention in neighbouring Lebanon have often clashed; in the destruction of Tel Al-Zaater camp, for example, and the so-called “Camp Wars” in Beirut, up to an including the destruction of Nahr al-Bared camp north of Tripoli. There are also strong memories of tragic experiences in Jordan in 1970 (“Black September”), Lebanon post-1982, Kuwait in 1991 and Iraq since 2003, when Palestinian refugees have fallen foul of host countries. Those in Syria, at less than 2.5 per cent of the total population, understand that they could only have extremely limited influence on national or revolutionary affairs.
Palestinian political entities, including the PLO, the Palestinian Authority and different factions have distanced themselves from what is happening in Syria, except for those affiliated with the regime and active mainly in the country. This even applies to Fatah and Hamas, even though the former has been denied the opportunity to work in public in Syria for three decades there is a historic rivalry between Fatah and the Syrian regime and Hamas backed the Arab Spring revolutions in the region.
Nevertheless, the fact that Palestinian refugee camps are not hotbeds of the Syrian revolution does not mean they have distanced themselves from it entirely. They have expressed their support for the revolution in other ways, represented by embracing the people of affected cities and districts, and providing humanitarian aid such as food, medical care and housing. Many Palestinians have also been active on social networks in support of the revolutionary cause.
Moreover, some Palestinians have participated directly in the revolution, in demonstrations and sit-ins and by helping with its coordination, hiding militants and rescuing the wounded and injured. Some have been arrested by the regime to be tortured and killed, or have simply disappeared.
Direct support from Palestinian camps is different, just as there are differences between Syrian cities. The fact is that support from within refugee camps in Syria tends to mirror the situation in the cities in which they are located. Hence, the camps in Dera’a, Homs, Latakia and Hama found themselves in the midst of the revolution, while others, in Damascus and Aleppo for example, followed the general situation in those two cities, joining the revolution at a later stage and with difficulty. It has to be stressed that this support was not military, even though the regime has bombed some of the camps, killing and torturing the inhabitants. It was, rather, through demonstrations and other more public displays of discontent with the status quo.
The Asad regime has not only attacked some of the refugee camps, but also sought to create the conditions therein for a counter-revolution. This succeeded to a certain extent in Neirab camp until the activities of groups of Palestinian youth overturned the efforts to cause dissent between neighbours.
Of all the Palestinian refugee camps in Syria, Yarmouk Camp stands out. It is almost a city in its own right. Located in the south of Damascus, its population of Palestinians and Syrians stands at around half a million people. With political and cultural interaction many of its inhabitants see no difference between Palestinians and Syrians in their struggle for freedom and dignity.
It was in Yarmouk two weeks ago that government forces used live ammunition to disperse demonstrators; dozens were killed and wounded. The following day, a massive turnout for the funerals of those killed expressed strong support for the revolution and prompted even more repression from the regime. It is notable that this increased Palestinian activity within the Syrian revolution coincided with an escalation of events in the revolution itself. Thus, Yarmouk has become one of the symbols of the revolution, playing host to those fleeing from the violence in the surrounding districts.
This is not the first incident to put this camp on the line for the revolution in Syria. A huge surge of unrest followed the killing of Palestinians by Israeli snipers on the occupied Golan Heights in June last year. The crowd’s anger was aimed at factions known to work with the Syrian regime and considered to have sacrificed the young martyrs in order to divert attention from the course of the popular revolution.
Such events suggest that the age of Palestinian factions is on the wane. Activists nowadays are young people who have lived through momentous times and have greater interaction with the outside world, and are thus less susceptible to factional propaganda. They want a role in the Arab Spring, regardless of what the faction leaders think and say, and take the attitude towards the revolution that what is good for the Syrians is good for the Palestinians too.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.