Introduction: the historical role of Palestinians in Syria
After they took refuge in Syria after the 1948 war, Palestinians refugees were treated in the same way as other Syrian citizens. Their numbers eventually reached 450,000, living mostly in 11 refugee camps throughout Syria (UNRWA, 2006).
Permitted to fully participate in the economic and social life of Syrian society, they had the same civic and economic rights and duties as Syrians, except that they could neither be nominated for political office nor participate in elections.
This helped them to feel that they were part of Syrian society, despite their refugee status and active role in the global Palestinian liberation struggle against the Israeli occupation of their homeland.
At the start of the anti-government movement in Syria, when the peaceful uprising against the Assad regime turned into an armed conflict, the inhabitants of most Palestinian refugee camps tried to remain neutral. But as the conflict grew more violent and regional alliances changed, the disparities and significant differences between the Palestinian factions, especially between Hamas and Fatah, led to divisions in their positions vis-àvis the Assad regime. These divisions were enhanced by the reduction of the role of the Palestinian diaspora in the struggle against the Israeli occupation and the new relevance of the geographic location of Palestinian refugee camps in the growing Syrian conflict. This was particularly true for the camps south of Damascus, because they separated the area west of Damascus from East Ghouta, both of which were opposition strongholds. These divisions resulted in the camps becoming targets in the armed conflict, leading to their bombardment and blockade, and the displacement of many of their residents to Lebanon, Turkey, Europe, and other locations both inside and outside Syria (Darwish & Metwaly, 2015).
The fate of the Palestinians in Syria after the Oslo Accords
The sense of Palestinian national identity began to shrink in favour of merging into Syrian society after the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1992 and the resulting loss by both the Palestinian diaspora in general and the inhabitants of the al-Yarmouk refugee camp in particular of their position as a key source of both material and ideological support for the Palestinian armed revolution in the diaspora. This was due in part to the failure of the various Palestinian national liberation factions to identify new ways of engaging the diaspora – including the half million Palestinians living in Syria – in the Palestinian struggle for the liberation of the land occupied by Israel.
This process happened slowly. After the Israeli blockade of Lebanon in 1982, the Palestinian militant struggle declined. Nonetheless, the Palestinian factions, through their developmental, social and cultural institutions, managed to continue to encourage the Palestinian youth in Syria to search for ways to peacefully struggle for liberation, in place of the militancy of the previous stage of the struggle against Israel.
With the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1992 the slogan became “the priority of the struggle is in the occupied territory”.
This resulted in the budgets of the Palestinian factions being reduced, as a consequence of which their work in Syria almost stopped, creating a wide gap between the factions and the refugee community. Many refugee community members then joined Syrian political parties, such as the Ba’ath Socialist Party or the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, while the vast majority of young Palestinians declared themselves to be independent of any Syrian political affiliation. As a result, in the last ten years many independent groups were created under the banner of the “Right of Return”. Many calls were made to oppose the Palestinian factions and hold them accountable for the marginalisation of the Palestinian refugees and the dilution of their national identity, especially after the Syrian regime suppressed the organisation of trade unions and banned all the unions of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). The Palestinians in Syria therefore no longer played a political role in the Palestinian liberation struggle.
This pushed the Palestinians to blend further with the lives of Syrian citizens: whatever affected Syrians in terms of economic or political achievements or setbacks would in one way or another affect the Palestinians in the camps.
Since 2006, the Palestinians have suffered many setbacks in Syria. Unemployment increased, reaching 34% among Palestinian youth. Poverty increased, as did the magnitude of the social and moral problems faced by Palestinians. What worsened the situation was the 70% decline in the socio-cultural work of the Palestinian factions and their nationalist role in Palestinian communities. This resulted in the increased reluctance of Palestinian youth to participate in the factions’ political work.
The Syrian revolution occurred at a time when the Palestinian camps, especially those south of Damascus, were experiencing high levels of unemployment among workers and university graduates, while poverty and drug use were spreading, education declining, and corruption increasing in Palestinian institutions and trade unions, together with the failure of the national Palestinian political project and an almost complete lack of participation by the diaspora in Syria in the global struggle for the liberation of Palestine.
All these factors caused tensions to rise among Syria-based Palestinian youth in general. This tension was particularly palpable in al-Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus after its avant garde role in the Palestinian revolution of the 1970s and 1980s had dwindled
(Darwish & Metwaly, 2015).
Palestinian positions on the conflict in Syria
Currently, the Palestinian refugee community’s positions on the conflict in Syria can be categorised as taking on one of three possible roles:
- 1. Neutrality
Despite their moral support for the Syrian revolution, this group attempts to remain neutral in the Syrian conflict. They are the largest percentage of the Palestinian community, and maintained the camps’ neutrality towards the events in Syria from the start of the protests against the Assad regime until the Free Syrian Army (FSA) entered the refugee camps in December 2012.This group’s position was that the Palestinian refugee camps have their own unique characteristics and the conflict is an internal Syrian one – a view that was widely echoed in Palestinian circles, at least in the first nine months of the Syrian revolution. This view is supported by the suffering experienced by the Palestinians of the diaspora during the war of the camps in Lebanon, and the deportation of Palestinians from Kuwait after Yasser Arafat expressed support for Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait in 1990.
This position was also that of the Palestinian Authority and the PLO factions who wanted to protect the Palestinian camps and avoid a repetition of the Lebanese experience. Moreover, the Palestinian Authority’s position was motivated by domestic deliberations in the framework of the internal power struggle with Hamas: it was attempting to benefit from the declining support for Hamas provided by Iran and the Syrian government.
- 2. Pro-regime
This position is confined to the Palestinian groups associated functionally with the Syrian regime and the factions traditionally loyal to it, i.e. the Palestinian Ba’ath Party, the Popular Front, the General Command and Fatah alIntifada. The majority of Palestinians in Syria understand such support for the regime, because these factions have no presence outside Syria and the fall of the regime would mean their own downfall, so the issue for them is one of basic survival, especially since their annual budgets come solely from Iran and the Syrian government.
To this category a group of people can be added who, after comparing the Palestinian situation in other Arab countries to the privileges conferred on the Palestinians by the Syrian state, decided to side with the Assad regime.
- 3. Pro-revolution
The majority of those who adopt this position are intellectuals, academics, and the middle class, who believe that the Syrian uprising and the overthrow of the regime would benefit the Palestinian revolution. Feeling that they have become an authentic part of the wider Syrian community, they were not so much supporters of the Syrian revolution as much as shareholders in its creation and evolution, while maintaining the specificity of their Palestinian identity.
Of course, this does not negate the existence of many voices in the Syrian opposition who reject the specific nature of Palestinian identity. The majority of these Palestinians are either nationalists or Islamists. This explains the shifting position of Hamas, which had and still has a prominent aim – even if it is an unofficial position – of moving away from the Syrian regime and Iran to conform with the Muslim Brotherhood’s positions and align itself
first politically, then militarily with those opposing the Syrian regime, including the FSA.
The situation in the Palestinian camps
- The regime’s attempts to play the Palestinian card and the collapse of camp neutrality
The Syrian regime has tried to lure young Palestinians to take up arms against the opposition, but all such attempts have failed. To put pressure on other countries in the region, especially those supporting the opposition, the regime opened Syria’s borders with Israel to thousands of peaceful young Palestinian demonstrators, allowing them to cross over to Israel on June 5th 2011. When the demonstrators tried to enter Palestine from the town of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights, Israeli soldiers shot at them before the eyes of a passive Syrian army, reportedly killing 22 young Palestinians and wounding more than a 100 (The New Arab, 2011; New York Times, 2011).
That day was a defining moment in the general mood of the Palestinians, not only in al-Yarmouk camp, but in all the Damascus camps and the surrounding countryside. The rational discourse that advocated for the neutrality of the camps was weakened and the activists who were conscious of the importance of camp security in southern Syria were no longer able to make their voices heard above the claims of more radical groups in the camps and those who proclaimed the need to turn the camps against the regime and join the opposition’s armed struggle.
- The blockade of Palestinian camps south of Damascus
The five Palestinian refugee camps south of Damascus are al-Sabeenah, al-Sit-Zeinab, al-Hassanyeh, Jaramaya (all of which are relatively small), Falasteen and al-Yarmouk.
The latter is the largest, with a population of nearly 800,000 people before 2011: around 150,000 Palestinians in addition to more than 600,000 Syrians. In 2002 UNRWA reported 112,550 registered Palestinian refugees in al-Yarmouk (UNRWA, 2002).
Once the armed opposition entered al-Sabeenah and al-Hassanyeh, and battles raged in Falasteen, the Syrian regime countered by imposing a blockade on the occupied camps, not allowing any medicine or food to enter. Many inhabitants fled to al-Yarmouk, increasing its population to an unsustainable 1 million-plus people, the majority of whom were Syrians who had fled the neighbouring East Ghouta towns and villages. By the end of 2012 the armed opposition forces had entered al-Yarmouk and most of its inhabitants had left. The number of remaining residents dwindled to an estimated 18,000 Palestinian refugees by 2013 (UNRWA, 2016a) and no more than 10,000 Syrians. As the fighting intensified and moved from neighbouring regions to inside the camp, the Syrian regime imposed an
even tighter blockade and siege, isolating the camp and preventing supplies from reaching the civilians who lived in it, both Palestinians and Syrians (Darwish & Metwaly, 2015).
Currently, of the original five Palestinian camps south of Damascus, only two are left: al-Yarmouk and Falasteen (the latter is under the administration of al-Yarmouk). This came about after the armed opposition entered al-Sabeenah camp and most of its inhabitants fled to al-Yarmouk or Kadsayah in Damascus. Al-Yarmouk remained under opposition control until 2014, when regime forces managed to regain control of it (after approximately 70% of the camp had been destroyed) and prevented the return of its original inhabitants. Meanwhile, regime forces took back control of both al-Hassanyeh and al-Sit-Zeinab camps after the opposition withdrew from them, and did not allow their original residents to return to them. This was partly due to the huge destruction there, and partly because the regime’s foreign allies replaced the original Palestinian refugees with Shia families of Hizbullah militias, as well as Iraqi and Iranian Shia militias.
Several Palestinian activists, […] claimed the government has allowed only loyalists to return to Yarmouk and actively discouraged everyone else.
They said they are concerned the Syrian government is systematically expropriating several homes, shops, and entire streets in the name of redevelopment. The government has also asked claimants to provide original documents proving ownership that many might have lost in the war, and blocked entry of the internally displaced Palestinians through checkpoints ostensibly to protect them from crumbling buildings.
Many activists and analysts said the idea behind controlling who is allowed back in seems to be to secure Damascus’s vicinity by populating it with those whose support President Bashar al-Assad’s government can rely on fully.
Several Palestinians of Yarmouk told […] they feel they are being punished by the government mainly because Hamas, an Islamist Palestinian movement, backed the opposition in the civil war instead of the regime.
The al-Assad regime supported Hamas over Yassir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation since the 1980s and expected the group to defend the government in the conflict. Hamas’s leadership, however, sided with the rebels.
Even though they maintained their Palestinian identity, over the years they became Syrian, too, and a part of the Syrian social fabric.
Many of those Palestinian-Syrians see themselves as dual citizens, of Syria, and of a future state of Palestine.
On April 3, 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that the Russian army, in coordination with the Syrian military, had discovered the remains of missing Israeli soldier Zechariah Baumel, along with those of 20 other people, in a cemetery in the Yarmouk Camp.