As war widens, Palestinians in Syria are caught in the middle

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 10, 2012 

— Like many of the approximately half a million Palestinians who live in Syria, Abu Abed tried to avoid taking sides when the uprising against the Syrian government began last year.

“You can’t take a position against the revolution, and you can’t take a position against the regime,” he said.

But after running afoul of the government as a result of a job working with internal refugees from the fighting – he prefers that the event not be described too specifically, as it would make him easy to identify – Abu Abed fled to Beirut, the capital of next-door Lebanon, where he’s lived in ambiguous circumstances since the beginning of the year.

He doesn’t know what he’ll do. He fears that the fall of the Syrian government, which he expects to take place in the next six months, will only lead to a wider civil war as various militias vie for power in the vacuum. Lacking a Syrian passport, he’s applied for a Palestinian one, but few countries recognize the document. He tried to register for assistance or protection with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but because he’s Palestinian, he was referred to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which administers aid programs for Palestinians in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

“They said there was nothing they could do for me,” said Abu Abed, who used a pseudonym that means “father of Abed” to shield his identity.

So now he’s an illegal immigrant to Lebanon, which has been granting Palestinians no more than two-week stays. According to Syrians in Lebanon, a number of Palestinians from Syria were arrested last month and face deportation to Syria.

Syrian activists in Lebanon say that at least 200 Palestinian families have fled here. Others have attempted to flee illegally to Jordan, only to find that they’re separated from other Syrian refugees and sent to a different camp. Human Rights Watch has reported that some Palestinians attempting to flee to Jordan have been turned back.

Before the rebellion against the government of President Bashar Assad began, Palestinians in Syria enjoyed a better quality of life than Palestinians did in any other place in the Middle East. They were given most of the same rights as Syrian citizens. They couldn’t get Syrian passports, but travel documents from the government were easily obtained.

But after the unrest started last year, it wasn’t long before Palestinians were involved. Abu Abed blames Assad for encouraging Palestinians to demonstrate in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in May 2011.

“It was to make Israelis and the international community understand that if the regime goes, the situation will be bad for Israel,” Abu Abed said. “The regime for the first time in 60 years opened the borders.”

In June 2011, Israeli soldiers fired on Palestinian demonstrators in Golan, killing more than 30. The event turned some against the Syrian government.

“Palestinians began to feel used,” Abu Abed said.

As fighting against the Syrian government moved to Damascus last month for the first time, Yarmouk, the largest Palestinian camp in the country, became a haven for refugees as the areas around it saw heavy combat between rebel militias and government forces.

As the Syrian military pursued the militias into Yarmouk from the adjacent Damascus neighborhood of Tadamon, tensions flared. Some residents of Yarmouk said that some of the fighting was now being done by a Palestinian unit of the Syrian army that had defected last week from its deployment in southern Syria and returned to Yarmouk to protect the area.

The numbers also suggest that Palestinians are becoming increasingly involved. Activists in Yarmouk said that of the more than 200 Palestinians who’d been killed in Syria since the uprising began 17 months ago, more than half had died in the past month. Other activists put the death toll at twice that number.

As elsewhere in the Middle East, the term “refugee camp” for where Palestinians live in Syria is a misnomer. Rather than in a temporary collection of tents and facilities, Palestinians in Syria live in low-income neighborhoods with narrow alleys and cinder-block buildings that often house extended families, with new floors added for each generation.

In Syria, however, the camps aren’t exclusively Palestinian; they’re also home to lower-income Syrians. Yarmouk is an example. By most estimates, the neighborhood houses half a million people, only one-fifth of whom are Palestinian. The non-Palestinian population has been swelling, as people fleeing violence in other parts of the country settled there.

The addition of refugees resulted in the shelling last year of Ramel, a Palestinian camp near the city of Homs. Fierce fighting also raged earlier this month in a Palestinian camp on the outskirts of Deraa, near the Jordanian border.

“I think if the situation continues this way, the Palestinians will become involved in the civil war, like what happened in Lebanon in the 1980s,” Abu Abed said, referring to the 15-year civil war that saw Palestinians beset by various Lebanese factions.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command, the largest Palestinian organization in Syria, remains allied with the Syrian government and until recent weeks had retained control over Yarmouk, a hold that appeared to be slipping as government troops shelled the neighborhood last week, killing 20 people in one day.

Abu Eyad, another Palestinian from Yarmouk, described a trip to Damascus from the northern city of Aleppo that shows the difficulties Palestinians face.

First, he was stopped at a rebel checkpoint and detained for hours, accused of sympathizing with the government.

“When I told them I was Palestinian, they said they would cut my throat,” he said. “Some Syrians think we are all with the government because of the PFLP.”

He was released after friends from Yarmouk with revolutionary credentials vouched for him, but he was stopped again closer to Damascus – this time by the government. He was accused of being a rebel sympathizer.

“What can we do?” he asked. “Nowhere in Syria is safe.”

Last Sunday, shells were landing only yards from his home in Yarmouk, and bodies – Palestinians and Syrians – lay in the streets. But there was nowhere to go.

“The government has stopped issuing travel passes,” Abu Eyad said.

For Abu Abed, the fighting has meant sleepless nights as he worried about his parents in Yarmouk.

“We moved them to another part of Damascus last week,” he said, with obvious relief.

Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email:; Twitter: @davidjenders

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