Syrian Conflict Makes Palestinians into Both Refugees and Combatants

By Blanford, Nicholas | The Christian Science Monitor, September 24, 2012 | Go to article overview

Syrian Conflict Makes Palestinians into Both Refugees and Combatants


Blanford, Nicholas, The Christian Science Monitor


Omar Hassan was just three years old when he and his family were forced to leave their home in northern Palestine during the creation of Israel, making a home as stateless refugees in a camp in Syria. Now, six decades on, Mr. Hassan is on the move again, fleeing the violence that has engulfed his neighborhood in Sitt Zeynab outside Damascus for the cramped but peaceful conditions of the Bourj ash- Shemali Palestinian refugee camp in south Lebanon.

In Sitt Zeynab, we had no problems until two months ago, then life became unbearable with a lot of shelling and fighting, says Hassan, an employee of an airline company in Syria. Bombs were falling just 150 meters from my home.

Hassan's plight illustrates how the estimated 500,000 Palestinian refugees living in Syria and the various political factions that represent them have been sucked into the vortex of Syrias 18-month war and how they have responded in different ways.

A tragic history

Hamas, a Sunni militant Islamist movement with links to the Muslim Brotherhood, has cautiously distanced itself from the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, previously a core ally. Although Hamas still keeps an office in Damascus, Khaled Meshaal, the head of the movements politburo, abandoned the Syrian capital in January for Qatar, a chief backer of the Syrian opposition to the Assad regime.

On the other hand, the Assad regime continues to enjoy the support of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine- General Command (PFLP-GC), a faction that has long been backed by Damascus and whose militants are fighting alongside government forces and the loyalist Shabiha militia.

But most Palestinians remain wary of taking sides in a conflict that has left 23,000 people dead since March last year, according to activists, and looks set to worsen even further in the months ahead.

The Palestinians have a tragic history of becoming embroiled in the regions conflicts. Some Lebanese continue to blame the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) for catalyzing the 1975-1990 civil war through its armed presence, which threatened to upset the delicate Christian-Muslim sectarian balance in the country. Today, Lebanons estimated 350,000 Palestinians are confined to 12 refugee camps and denied many basic services.

In 1991, Kuwait expelled almost all its Palestinian residents, who comprised about 30 percent of the states population. The expulsion was in response to then PLO leader Yasser Arafats decision to support former Iraqi President Saddam Husseins invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Iraqs Palestinian population, which was treated relatively well under President Hussein, was persecuted after the 2003 US-led invasion with thousands displaced or murdered in the ensuing sectarian bloodshed. Many of them continue to live in squalid refugee camps along the Jordan-Iraq border.

'Conditions are difficult'

Hassan lives in a tiny house belonging to his sister-in-law deep inside Bourj ash-Shemali camp, which he shares with five other families.

There are three bedrooms only but 25 people living here, he says. We are facing very hard conditions. Nobody is doing anything for us. We dont know anyone here. The people have been very kind to us but theres not much they can do. They are already poor.

In another house a little further down a narrow gloomy passageway are three blind women who traveled from the Palestinian camp of Jeramana, 10 miles southeast of Damascus.

The situation was getting worse day by day. We had to escape the war, the shelling, says Fatmeh al-Hassan sitting in an empty room, staring sightlessly at the floor. Samira, her sister, lies beneath a blanket on the floor, her face yellowed. …

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