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The effects of the revolution on Syria's Palestinian refugee camps

January 25, 2014 at 3:23 am

None of the Palestinian families in the Yarmouk refugee camp was expecting 21 to be killed and dozens of wounded as they broke their fast earlier in this month of Ramadan, but the mortar shells which hit them were not entirely unexpected either. After all, the camp and neighbouring area had been used by pro-Assad “Shabiha” gangs and snipers to kill passers-by, and eleven Palestinians had been killed by Syrian security forces during a peaceful demonstration to condemn massacres in Syria on July 13.

From the very beginning, 16 months ago, Palestinian refugee camps decided not to take part in the Syrian revolution for several reasons:

  • Palestinian refugees are not a large section of society in Syria at just 3 per cent of the total population spread around 12 camps.
  • Palestinians recognise that they are only refugees in the country; they are not Syrian nationals and have avoided politics for 64 years.
  • They recognise their fellow refugees’ tragic experience with other host regimes, notably in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Kuwait. This increased their caution about involvement, which could threaten their existence and stability.
  • The lack of political reconciliation in Palestinian affairs turned people off movements and factions.
  • The Syrian regime used the Palestinian cause to strengthen itself and justify its own policies, with slogans about Palestine being a central cause of the Arabs being mere rhetoric.

The Syrian revolutionaries understood the special status of the camps and did not put any extra burden on them. They even tried to keep revolutionary activities away from the camps, with demonstrations, for example, stopping at their entrances.

So what happened? How did the Palestinian refugee camps get involved in the Syrian revolution? What is the real story behind the relationship between the camps and the revolution? Two things have to be considered: the collective involvement of the camps and individual involvement.

It is clear that the camps adjacent to active cities were almost obliged to be involved because of their location. That’s what happened early on to the camps in Daraa, Latakia, Homs and Hama. In contrast, the refugee camps in Damascus and Aleppo were only gradually involved; events in the main city were usually replicated inside the adjoining camp.

Different factors led the Palestinian camps to take a role in the revolution, not least that the methods used by the Syrian authorities did not distinguish between city suburbs and camps. Furthermore, gangs of “Shabiha” thugs tried to spread doubt among refugees and sow discord between them and their Syrian neighbours. Historically, Palestinians and Syrian living side by side have been subject to the same official subjugation and thus shared their anger at the regime. This increased when the refugees witnessed the massive destruction and killing in neighbouring areas.
The refugees could not simply ignore the suffering and did their best to alleviate its effects, opening their camps to their neighbours fleeing from the destruction and offering medical aid and humanitarian relief. This strengthened the bonds between Syrians and Palestinian refugees, reflected in demonstrators’ chants that “Syrian and Palestinian are one”.

Some Palestinian allies of the Syrian regime in the camps spread malicious rumours leading to clashes over relatively trivial things and exploited minor incidents to incite the refugees against the revolution. This was accompanied with weapons being distributed to youths who support the regime.

Irresponsible remarks by leaders of some Palestinian factions linked to the regime claimed that they have a “fatal alliance” with it and the revolution is external interference in Syrian affairs. However, all of this encouraged Palestinian youth to empathise with the revolution, not stand against it.

Thus the involvement of the refugee camps varied for a number of reasons. While those in Daraa, Latakia and Homs are at the heart of the revolution, many others such as Neirab in Aleppo and Khan Eshieh, Jaramana and Qabr Essit in Damascus are far removed from it because of their distance from the cities. Yarmouk Camp was not involved until the middle of July when the revolution came calling in the areas of Al-Taqaddom, Al-Tadamon, Yelda and Al-Hajr al-Aswad.

On an individual level, many Palestinian youth found a way to express themselves in the revolution. They saw their chance to confirm the common and united fate of Palestinians and Syrians and take the opportunity to follow the youth in other countries who started the “Arab Spring”. For young Palestinians, there was no choice but to get involved in the struggle for freedom with their Syrian brothers with whom they had studied in schools and universities, worked alongside and shared their concerns.

Hence, Palestinian individuals from all refugee camps were involved in all activities of the revolution: peaceful demonstrations and protests, public opinion battle and relief work. It was logical, therefore, for individual Palestinians to suffer the same fate as some of their Syrian brothers. Internet sources which monitor casualties state that there have been 180 Palestinians killed inside and outside the camps since the start of the revolution.

Palestinian factions represented in Syria were hesitant about taking sides. The official leadership represented by the PLO, Palestinian Authority and Fatah adopted a cautious position towards the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya revolutions in line with official Arab positions and their own bitter experience with the regimes in those countries. As such, despite the frosty relationship with the Assad regime the Palestinian leadership adopted a similar position towards the Syrian revolution. This was clear in Fatah’s condemnation of the massacre in Yarmouk Camp which did not blame the perpetrators.

The left-leaning groups among Palestinians sometimes backed the regime, claiming that external influences were behind the revolution, and sometimes supported the popular demands for freedom, democracy and justice.

Hamas, although also hesitant at first, gave explicit support to the Arab Spring revolutions and took the decision to move its political bureau and leadership from Damascus to Cairo and Qatar.

The Palestinian groups remaining in Syria face big challenges in the light of the potential regime change, as they oppose the Fatah and PA leadership but back the Assad regime. It is because these factions feel that their fate is connected to the fate of the Syrian government that they have been trying to push the refugee camps to be involved in Syrian affairs at all costs. This has had the opposite effect on refugees who have been suffering from such a policy and the tension arising from the attempt to form paramilitary groups on the pretext of protecting the camps.

All in all, the official Palestinian position is clearly cowardly from a political point of view because the Palestinian leadership, including the different factions, feel that they are as one with Arab regimes waiting for the winds of change from the Arab Spring to hit them sooner or later. This is what can be deduced from its hesitancy, although nothing more is demanded from the leadership except taking a moral stand on the struggle for freedom by the people of Syria.

At the very least, the leadership needs to say that victims of oppression sympathise with other victims who seek freedom, dignity and justice. This is the situation for Palestinian refugees and their Syrian hosts and neighbours. It is a spontaneous and natural position to take, because Palestinians see and feel that what is good for the Syrians is also good for them; the issue of freedom is a universal cause.

The author is a Palestinian writer based in Damascus. This article is a translation from the Arabic version which appeared on Al Jazeera net on 7 August

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.