North Africa, West Asia

Palestinians in Syria struggle for bread and agency

Rather than being 'neutral', Palestinians in Syria find themselves caught in a deadly grip between Assad's regime on the one hand and extremist groups on the other.

Céline Cantat
5 December 2014
Palestinian protest in solidarity with Yarmouk refugee camp. Demotix/Mahmoud Essa. All rights reserved.

Palestinian protest in solidarity with Yarmouk refugee camp. Demotix/Mahmoud Essa. All rights reserved.

In a recent article published on Russia Today and re-posted on Palestine solidarity websites, Sharmine Narwani offers a version of the situation of Palestinians in Syria considerably different to that described by numerous Syrian Palestinian refugees.

In her article, she depicts Syria’s Palestinian population as endlessly grateful toward the regime, which allegedly has never failed to support the Palestinian struggle. Palestinian refugees in Syria—rather than having their own political agency and interests with respect to the crisis affecting the country where they have lived for over 60 years—had a sole political motto: “neutrality”. She claims that “Islamic rebels” then challenged this neutrality, invading Palestinian neighbourhoods and forcing refugees to take up arms.

The author presents Palestinians in Syria as a homogenous bloc, speaking in one voice—that of their political leaders, who are the main sources in her article. She overlooks both the diversity of the Palestinian political community and, more importantly, the way in which the Syrian regime has been cultivating conflict between Palestinian factions since the 1970s, to better ensure its hegemonic grip over the region.

In 1976, Hafez al Assad told Yasser Arafat, “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people, there is no Palestinian entity, there is only Syria...Therefore it is we, the Syrian authorities, who are the true representatives of the Palestinian people”. Kissinger, a great admirer of Hafez al Assad, explained that “Assad did not like the PLO because an independent Palestinian state was upsetting his long-term strategic goal, that of Greater Syria”.

Narwani quotes several representatives of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) led by Ahmad Jibril. The PFLP-GC is a historical ally of the Syrian regime, which supports it materially and logistically. In 1976, when the Syrian army allowed Lebanese Christian militias to kill thousands of PLO fighters and Palestinian civilians during the Tel Al Zaatar siege, the PFLP-GC remained loyal. Similarly, during the 1980s war in the camp, the PFLP-GC took the side of the Syrian Baath regime and assassinated numerous PLO fighters on its behalf.

Following the defeat of the Palestinian revolution, the PFLP-GC aided the Syrian regime by arresting and detaining PLO fighters who entered Syria. The faction continues to support the Syrian regime to this day, by policing Palestinian camps in Syria and providing intelligence on the local population. The author also mentions As-sai’qa and Fatah el Intifada, respectively the Palestinian branch of the Syrian Baath party and a group of dissidents from Arafat’s Fatah encouraged by the Syrian regime to form their own group, which it supports and closely controls.

Narwani also quotes several officials from the Palestinian Liberation Army (PLA), which, according to Syrian Palestinians, “no longer has anything to do with liberating Palestine”. Originally established in several Arab countries, it was rarely mobilised and always by order of the Syrian regime, in order to provide support to its army during the Lebanese wars. Kissinger suggested that it was practically “a branch of the Syrian army”, which Hafez al Assad could use to reinforce ascendency over Lebanon and unbalance the PLO.

In the PLA, there is a unit that has not been staffed since 1983. That year, as the fighting was raging in Lebanon, the Syrian regime ordered the PLA’s young conscripts to shoot at PLO fighters sheltering in the Palestinian camp of Beddawi, in the north of the country. The conscripts refused; they were all shot on the spot by Syrian soldiers. The unit remains, but it has been without personnel since then.

When the Palestinian Authority was established following the Oslo Accords, the remaining PLA branches in Arab countries were dissolved except in the case of Syria, where it was placed under the direct command of the Syrian military. Since the end of the Lebanese war, the PLA has not been mobilised in any action to liberate Palestine.

However, it was recently called upon by the Syrian regime in order to protect strategic sites. PLA units have been posted in Adra, south of Damascus, to prevent armed opposition groups from progressing toward the capital city. Other units have been sent to Harran al-Awamid, where they protect an electric plant. The young Palestinians forced to do their military service pay a high price: deserters face death and reprisals on their families.

Even before the beginning of the uprising in Syria, these organisations had lost most of their credibility with the Palestinian population in Syria. Since 1982, the disengagement of the community from party politics has increased, widening the gap between the political leadership and refugees. A majority of Palestinians in Syria made their disaffection clear by ending their membership in Palestinian factions.

George Habbash’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (to be distinguished from the PFLP-GC, which split from it to rally to the Syrian side in 1968) had historically held an intermediary position on the Palestinian political stage, ensuring a balance between Palestinian factions. But the PFLP was weakened after the death in 2001 of Abu Ali Mustafa, George Habbash’s successor, and the subsequent arrests in Palestine of its next two leaders, Ahmad Saadat and Abdelrahim Maluh.

Consequently, in the 2000s, Maher Taher, the new PFLP leader in Syria, became closer to the Syrian regime and Hamas. The secretary of Hamas’ political bureau, Khaled Meshaal, was then hosted and fully supported by Damascus. Maher Taher only distanced himself from Hamas following the disagreement between the Islamic party and Bashar al Assad, as a result of Hamas’ support for the Syrian uprising.

Narwani quotes Maher Taher as if he was representative of Palestinians in Syria. However, angry Palestinian refugees chased him out of Yarmouk cemetery when he tried to attend the funerals of young people killed by the Israeli army in the Golan on 5 June 2011—a day that Narwani describes inaccurately.

The story began a few months before. Palestinian activists, encouraged by the Arab uprisings, had called on Palestinian refugees in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria to organise demonstrations in front of the Israeli border in their respective countries on 15 May, the day of commemoration of the Nakba (‘catastrophe’ in Arabic, referring to the creation of the state of Israel and the exile of thousands of Palestinians from their native land).

The Syrian regime decided to allow the event, to restore its image as “champion of resistance to Israel” and distract attention from what was happening inside the country. But when Palestinians arrived in the Golan, part of which was conquered by Israel in the 1967 war, the regime could not have imagined the turn events would take.

This type of demonstration is usually limited to a few speeches and photos of faction leaders and some Baath party members. This time, enflamed by the events across the Arab world and exasperated by the situation in Syria, a group of young Palestinians crossed through the Syrian military zone leading to the Israeli border.

Hundreds more took after them. They reached the other side, taking by surprise the only Israeli patrol on site. Reinforcements were called on the Israeli side and soldiers opened fire on the crowd, killing four Palestinians and wounding dozens more. Palestinian faction leaders, accompanied by their bodyguards and some fighters, did nothing to prevent the killing of Palestinian civilians.

What really surprised Palestinians that day was not that the Israeli army shot at them. It was discovering that the way to the border and to Palestine was not, as the regime had always claimed, riddled with mines. The only obstacle between the refugees and Palestine were the lies of the Syrian regime.

Following this tragic incident, Palestinian factions, notably the PFLP-GC, decided to organise a similar event on 5 June, the day of commemoration of the Naksa (the Arab defeat of 1967). This proposition engendered heated discussions in the camps, particularly Yarmouk. Palestinians found themselves facing an unexpected and unprecedented question: could this invitation lead the way to their homeland or was it a trap that would lead them to death? They now knew that the border was open on the Syrian side. But the experience of 15 May had also taught them that the Palestinian factions would not defend them.

On the evening of 4 June, the regime officially announced that the event was cancelled. But the next day, buses prepared by the Syrian regime and the PFLP-GC still stood at the camp entrance. Groups of young Palestinians from Yarmouk were taken as planned to the Golan. When they arrived, they realised with surprise that Anwar Raja, head of public relations for the PFLP-GC (also interviewed by Narwani), was waiting for them there with journalists and reporters from several official Syrian channels. Raja launched into a harangue about “true resistance,” saying that the only real battle that called for sacrifice was the fight against Israel. That day, 25 other young Palestinians were killed and 350 wounded. Neither Anwar Raja nor his bodyguards went anywhere near the border—nor did they defend their Palestinian compatriots.

These were the reasons for the Palestinians’ anger that led them to chase Maher Taher from the cemetery where the funerals were taking place. This same anger then directed the crowd to the offices of the PFLP-GC, where camp residents intended to hold the faction’s leaders accountable. They were met by machine-gun fire from Ahmad Jibril’s fighters. He was the one who gave the order to open fire on the crowd, killing several demonstrators.

Faced with this bloody repression, the anger of demonstrators was fuelled further and, defying PFLP-GC bullets, they started calling for "the fall of the factions" (el sha’ab yourîd esqât el fasâ’il). By appropriating the slogan of the Arab revolution, the people of Yarmouk sketched the possibility of their own uprising. Protected by his armed bodyguards, Ahmad Jibril escaped, leaving behind three of his fighters, who were trampled by the crowd as it forced open the doors to the offices and set them on fire.

In the following months, the PFLP-GC stepped up its security operations in the camps. In Yarmouk alone, over 1,000 Palestinians were arrested and interrogated by the Palestine branch of the Syrian security services. The PFLP-GC also started arming its supporters in the camp, despite the reluctance of other Palestinian factions. PFLP-GC militias soon appeared in the camp. They supported the Syrian army’s operations in neighbouring areas, such as Tadamon and Hajjar el Aswad. They stopped and murdered people they perceived as enemies. They also looted many shops and houses.

In the course of the summer during which Narwani visited Yarmouk for the first time, several bombs fell on the camp. No one knew exactly where they came from. But when military aircraft—MiG—began shelling the camp on 16 December 2012, targeting civilian buildings such as hospitals, schools and mosques, it was clear that they were piloted and controlled by officers of the Syrian army. This intensive bombing forced much of the population of Yarmouk to escape on 16 and 17 December. Following this new mass exodus of Palestinians, including fighters from the PFLP-GC, armed groups entered Yarmouk from neighbouring districts. They did not have to fight—the camp was already half empty.

After the arrival of opposition groups in Yarmouk, the Syrian regime established a checkpoint at the camp entrance, soon renowned throughout Syria as one of the most dangerous in the country. The checkpoint opened in the morning and people could cross it until one of the regime’s snipers positioned close by opened fire on passers-by. This was the signal that the route was no longer safe. The checkpoint then remained closed for the rest of the day.

When using this unique crossing point, women were frequently harassed by the soldiers, and many people, young men especially, were arrested. Palestinians told me how, to access the checkpoint from the roundabout marking the beginning of Yarmouk camp, they moved in groups, in tight rows and zigzagging continuously to avoid being hit by snipers: "We felt death getting closer with every step." Yet they had to leave the camp where food was becoming increasingly scarce. The soldiers had limited the amount of bread each inhabitant could bring in to a single bag. Families were not able to feed their children anymore.

In July 2013, the regime hermetically sealed off the camp, on which a relentless siege was imposed. Under the pretext of forcing enemy fighters out, the population was surrounded. People were left without food or medicine, and for weeks without drinking water. Dozens of people have died from the effects of the siege, mostly children, women and the elderly. It is only the regime that imposes and maintains the embargo. It is the regime alone that bears responsibility for the deaths that have resulted from it. Yet Narwani does not judge any of this as worth mentioning in her article, though it echoes medieval warfare and reflects unrivalled cruelty.

When describing the difficulties encountered by humanitarian agencies trying to deliver food aid to Yarmouk, Narwani fails to mention that the camp is under siege. She does not explain that the Syrian regime controls the camp’s main entrance, the closest to Damascus, and that therefore only the regime can decide to let humanitarian convoys through.

UNRWA’s spokesman, Chris Gunness, explained in January 2014 that, "when the Syrian authorities finally allowed UNRWA to deliver aid to Yarmouk, they forced UNRWA to use the southern entrance. This means that the convoy had to cross 20 km through an area of intense armed conflict, in which many of the armed opposition groups, including the most extreme jihadist groups, had a strong presence.” Mr Gunness added, "citing security concerns, the Syrian authorities have not allowed UNRWA to pass through the northern entrance of Yarmouk, which was under the control of the government and was considered much more accessible and relatively less risky."

One can legitimately wonder what security problems could justify sending a humanitarian convoy to an intense conflict zone. Unless, of course, if the will of the regime to deliver humanitarian aid to the besieged and starving inhabitants of Yarmouk was in fact a feint.

Camp residents told a very different story to the one Narwani obtained by speaking with the allies of the Syrian regime: 

“The aid didn’t enter. We were all present, groups of civilians from the camp. What happened is the Syrian regime and Jibril’s (Ahmad Jibril of the PFLP-GC) people began a skirmish to prevent the aid from entering. We had no militants, no weapons. And the people that were present, as you can see, were all civilians, none of us have weapons. So they began a skirmish, and started saying there are people from your end that are shooting at us. We have no one that was shooting. We are only here to take the aid to the people. So they began this skirmish and shot three missiles at us from a tank, we have no tanks, three tank missiles were shot at us. And the men took footage of the place where the tank missile was shot. They did this to increase the siege on the camp. And it is the killing of the Palestinian people and this area.”

In an attempt to put an end to this organized famine, a delegation of the Palestinian Authority eventually went to Damascus to negotiate the possibility of bringing food into the camp. The Syrian regime pretended to agree to the entry of two UNRWA trucks, but this derisory convoy was stopped by a group of shabbiha (paid civilians who operate as regime paramilitaries) before it could reach its beneficiaries. Negotiations dragged on, but the Palestinian Authority never managed to guarantee humanitarian support to the Palestinians in Yarmouk. 

Syrian Palestinians have indeed been drawn into the Syrian conflict. They were victims of the manoeuvres of the dictatorial regime and its allies. More than ever, they are now the orphans of the Arab world, betrayed by their political leaders, caught between Israeli bullets, those of the Syrian regime and those of allied Palestinian factions. This cannot fail to recall the situation of Syrians who, more than three years after the start of their uprising, find themselves caught between the bloody regime and equally brutal extremist groups.

At the time of writing, the culprits are still free and their crimes against the Syrian and Palestinian populations in Syria continue.

This article was originally published here in French by Le Monde Diplomatique on 21 November 2014.

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