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Palestinians are also victims of sectarian fallout from Syria

It was inevitable that Syria's bloody civil war would engulf the 530,000 Palestinian refugees in the country. The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) confirms that 70-80 per cent have been displaced, with more than 56,000 fleeing into Lebanon. Of the residents who were living in Yarmouk Camp near Damascus, 85 per cent have now fled. For whatever perverse reasons, though, there are attempts to exploit this human tragedy at the expense of neighbouring Lebanon.


Efforts to keep the Palestinians out of what was essentially an internal conflict between the Assad regime and its people have failed tragically. With the increased involvement of regional and international parties, it was only a matter of time before the Syrian conflict subsumed everyone, Palestinians included. At the beginning of this month the number of Palestinians killed since the uprising began in 2011 stood at 1,354.

The Syrian regime and its allies in Iran and Lebanon expected to get the unconditional support of the exiled Palestinian factions. While some, notably the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command led by Ahmad Jibreel, fought alongside the regime to suppress the uprising, the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) refused to get involved.

There were two fundamental reasons for Hamas's decision. First was its policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of its host countries or any others; the second relates to the lingering memory of Lebanon's 1975-1990 Civil War in which the PLO fought alongside Lebanese Muslims against Christians. By 1982, however, thousands of Palestinian refugees were killed, the PLO was forced out of Lebanon, and its military capability was shattered comprehensively.

For Hamas, the decision to sever ties with the Assad regime was not an easy one. Not only did the movement sacrifice its base in Damascus, but also its special relationship with Iran and Hezbollah. The subsequent deterioration of relations with all three culminated in last week's public call from Hamas on Hezbollah to withdraw its fighters from Syria. According to the statement, Hezbollah's involvement is fanning the flames of sectarianism across the Middle East.

Both resistance movements had previously shared a common agenda of resistance to Israel's occupation of Lebanon and Palestine. Importantly, they both received political, financial and military support from the same source, Iran. And just as Hamas's departure from Damascus has caused logistical and other inconveniences, the rift with Hezbollah appears to be having negative consequences on the ground in Lebanon.

Recently, several regional media sources reported that the Lebanese organisation had given the Hamas leadership 48 hours to leave the country. They were followed by similar reports of visas not being granted to some Hamas officials to enter Lebanon. Still further, after the Syrian regime recaptured the town of Qusayr with the help of Hezbollah, more rumours began to emerge, including the claim that Hamas had sent fighters from its Izz al Din al Qassam Brigades to join the Syrian opposition.

If these were intended to raise tensions in the area, they have succeeded. Already faced with allegations of Palestinian involvement in the Egyptian Sinai, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh sought to dispel the Lebanese claims. Addressing worshippers at a mosque in Rafah last Friday he said that Hamas's mission to liberate Palestine was far from complete so how could it contemplate sending combatants elsewhere?

Back in Lebanon the swell of negative reports shows no sign of abating, prompting an urgent letter from Hamas to Minister of Information Waleed Al-Daouq. It urged the government's intervention to prevent the situation from spiralling out of control, particularly in the Palestinian refugee camps.

Meanwhile, the rise of sectarian tensions in Lebanon and the spill over of the conflict from Syria has forced several Gulf countries to withdraw their nationals and impose a travel ban to the country. The 450,000 Palestinians in Lebanon have no such option; their right of return to their land is denied by Israel.

There is no disguising the fact that the region has become dangerously polarised along sectarian lines. The Syrian conflict has opened divisions between Shia and Sunni Muslims from Iraq through Lebanon and into the Gulf. While all the countries affected have everything to lose, Israel stands to gain everything; the situation could not be better as far as the Israeli government is concerned. Indeed, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan has urged the government to seize the moment and exploit to the maximum the current tensions.

The dark forces that now seek to expand the Syrian conflict into Lebanon will not achieve their objective. Having lived through a decade and a half of civil war, the Lebanese people have no appetite for another orgy of bloodletting. Unlike 1975, they recognise on this occasion that the Palestinians are not the cause but the victims of the current tensions. Any attempt, therefore, to make them scapegoats for the Syrian catastrophe is destined to fail.

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Commentary & AnalysisIsraelMiddle EastPalestineSyria
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