PALESTINIAN REFUGEES IN THE SYRIAN WAR, A STORY RARELY TOLD – by Mary Rizzo
Prior to the war in Syria, there were 135,000 Palestinians living inside the Yarmouk Refugee Camp, the largest in Syria. Since the beginning of the revolution, they have been subject to destruction and an on-going vicious siege, meant to “punish” the Palestinians for their support and solidarity towards the “Syrian rebels” against the regime. Today, there are less than 40,000 still remaining, and they live in dire conditions, the others once again experiencing a situation of displacement, poverty and exile.
In Syria, Palestinians had been banned by the Syrian regime from participating in organised protesting. Political activity was channelled through the Ba’ath approved PFLP, which however did nothing to create social organisations such as labour unions or political committees which might challenge the dominant regime and lead them to bringing about some improvements. Though living with greater freedoms than the refugees inside Lebanese refugee camps, where exclusion and separation from the Lebanese society, prohibitions upon even working and a complete disregard for the living conditions of the camps that resemble shanty-towns in their decay and permanence are the norm, the refugees inside Syria experience great hardships and they felt a connection with the Syrians. Thus, solidarity and identification with the Syrians is a counterpart to their identification with other Palestinians.
The first steps of solidarity by Palestinians were witnessed when life necessities were smuggled by the refugees of the Dara’a camp into nearby Dara’a, which was under a military siege following the outbreak of the uprising. Seven Palestinians were killed as a response by the regime, and this ignited the fires of a never-fully forgotten or forgiven resentment of the treatment of Palestinians by the regime. In particular, the memory returned to the 1976 massacre in Tel al-Zaatar refugee camp in Lebanon, when a Syrian invasion of Lebanon allowed right-wing militias to kill thousands of Palestinian refugees. Assad’s father, then President Hafez al-Assad was remembered for his brutality against the Palestinian resistance inside those camps.
Yet, given that all Palestinian support of the uprising was brutally crushed, a sort of consensus settled that the participation would be in the form of solidarity towards the Syrians, offering refuge and shelter, in addition to putting to use their skills in organisation and treating the wounded, as well as strong media support and the creation of a Local Coordination Committee and logistical support. The regime responded by beginning to directly punish the Palestinians within the camp, as well as arming the PFLP-CC which had begun its own round of shooting upon Palestinians attending the funeral of the ill-fated Naksa Day massacre.
The Yarmouk Camp was subjected to aerial raids with Russian fighter jets used by the Syrian Arab Army and the entering of tanks which subjected the camp to non-stop mortar shelling. The reaction was for the Free Syrian Army to arrive in order to defend the camp from the PFLP-CC, basically Syrian militants with some paid Palestinians who fought for them, taking their orders from Syria’s Air Force Intelligence Unit. The pro-regime units controlled all entrances to the camp and also used the camp as a base for operations in other areas to tighten the siege. When the FSA arrived, the paid Palestinians defected, and the result was a steady stream of bombing by the regime. The role of the camp as a lifeline and logistics centre changed, and naturally, as much as resentment grew for the war being brought into the camp itself, the increase in the violence of the regime had convinced the majority of the residents that they could not be allowed to have no defences at all, and the camp became the theatre of an out and out war, with the Syrian regime killing and bombing indiscriminately. The number of the killed and wounded of all ages soared, as well as the amount of people fleeing towards other lands of exile. And a rushed exile it was, as the regime halted the military operations just long enough to allow eight hours for refugees to leave the camp, most of them arriving in Lebanon, being further subjected to a visa fee that made it impossible for the most needy families to escape.
As it stands, there are more than 1,500 Palestinians who have been killed by the regime during this war, and countless wounded. Persons whose status as refugees did not guarantee them protection by their host country, but rather, subjected them to humiliation, hunger and death. The dispersion of the Palestinian population and their dive into misery is such that they too comprise another aspect of the emergency that is the war Assad and his regime is waging against the Syrian people.
It is the duty and the obligation of activists for Palestinians to understand the situation and denounce the killings, shelling, bombing, expulsion and siege, which have no comparison to any other war waged on them for amount of casualties and destruction. It is time for activists for Palestine to care about Palestinians and that means to support the Syrian struggle to end the reign of terror of Assad.
by Mary Rizzo