BEIRUT — Syria’s Palestinians have been trapped by the conflict in that country, much the way Palestinian refugee populations found themselves trapped between factions in the civil wars in Iraq and Lebanon.
Now some Palestinians in Syria say they fear fighting among Palestinian factions, much the same way Palestinian groups clashed with one another during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war.
Iraq had a comparatively small number of Palestinians compared to the half-million refugees who call Syria home. In Iraq, the majority of the estimated 30,000 Palestinian refugees eventually fled. Because they did not hold passports, thousands were trapped on the borders of Syria and Jordan, in some cases for years.
Now Syrian Palestinians fear their travel options will be similarly restricted even as the battle for control of the country’s 13 refugee camps intensifies. Some of the camps, which are actually neighborhoods that are often home to poor Syrians and Iraqi refugees as well as Palestinians, already have been badly damaged by fighting.
There are 13,000 Palestinians from Syria now in Lebanon, according to the United Nations Relief Works Agency, which administers millions of Palestinian refugees inside and outside the West Bank and Gaza. Syrian activists say the number is closer to 30,000, and that most have taken refuge in four of Lebanon’s Palestinian camps.
Palestinians from the Yarmouk neighborhood of Damascus, the country’s largest “camp,” said that they are caught between two sides and that both the government and the rebels have engaged in the suppression of dissent.
“Some of the rebel battalions are making big mistakes and provoking people in the Yarmouk camp,” said Nidal, a Syrian Palestinian from Yarmouk who asked that his last name be withheld for security reasons. He named a pair of anti-government activists who had been detained by the rebels for encouraging all armed factions to withdraw from Yarmouk, one of whom he said was still being held.
“These actions made many Palestinian people angry with the two sides, and they are preparing now according to activists inside the camp to start fighting all the sides which are destroying the camp,” Nidal said.
Other complaints are even more basic.
“The (rebels) didn’t bring bread like they said,” said Mohamed Abu Eyad, an anti-government activist from Yarmouk who had fled the area with his family. He said he remained a supporter of the rebels, but he also feared them.
“If you tell them something is wrong, now they do the same thing the government does,” he said.
He said the chaos and looting by rebel groups had played out the same way it has in other parts of the country – it had increased support for rebel groups who call for an Islamic state to replace President Bashar Assad’s government. Groups like Jabhat al Nusra, declared a terrorist group with links to al Qaida by the U.S. government, have capitalized.
“Nusra are very organized. They follow orders,” Abu Eyad said. “In Yarmouk, they even stopped other groups from looting.”
Other former peaceful activists said they would start their own militias, independent of the rebels and the government.
They also said that Lebanon’s camps had become strongholds of support for different Palestinian militias, and that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command, a Palestinian militia that acts as a Syrian government proxy in Damascus, was training fighters to return to Syria. The PFLP-GC also was active in the Lebanese civil war, and though many PFLP-GC fighters defected to the rebels when fighting began in Yarmouk five months ago, the group remains strong, especially at the perimeter of the camp, Abu Eyad said.
“Ninety percent of the Palestinians have military experience from their time in Lebanon,” Abu Eyad said. “But if the Palestinians fight each other, it is because the PFLP has an army in Damascus.”
During Lebanon’s civil war, Palestinians took up arms to defend themselves against all sides. Lebanon’s camp districts, still poverty stricken and sometimes violent, are a legacy of the conflict, which some Lebanese blame on the influx of Palestinians from what is now Israel, creating lingering resentment and hostility.
The period of 1984-89, when Palestinian factions battled not just the invading Israelis and local Lebanese militias but also fought among themselves, is sometimes referred to as “The Camp War.”
Those who remain complain that Palestinians continue to suffer discrimination, particularly at the hands of the Shiite Muslim-dominated government, which they say uses anti-terrorism laws to harass the mostly Sunni Muslim Palestinian population.
Syria’s Palestinians are not the only minority trapped by the fighting that has taken on broad sectarian outlines, pitting the country’s Sunni majority against the Allawite Shiite minority that has ruled for decades.
Syrian Kurds, who have watched Kurdish militia battle rebels and the Syrian government for control of parts of Syria’s Kurdish northeast, say they are in the process of forming similar armed groups. Syria’s Druze population, mostly centered around the southern city of Suweida, appears also to have been drawn into the conflict more fully in recent weeks, as attacks there against the Syrian army and security forces have reportedly grown in frequency.
Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @davidjenders