Palestinian Camps in Syria: Pulled into the Fray
By: Anas Zarzar
Published Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Although “Palestinian neutrality” in the Syrian crisis was maintained for months, Palestinian refugee camps finally entered the conflict after 17 conscripts in the Palestinian Liberation Army were killed.
Yarmouk Refugee Camp, Syria - “The camp flared up... Its streets turned into an explosive human volcano.” That is how Abu Nidal, a street vendor, summarized events in the Yarmouk refugee camp over the past few days and the repercussions of the ongoing violent confrontations that took place there.
There is a clear state of escalation in the camp, located south of the capital Damascus, after the bloody confrontations that took place when the youth of the camp came out in an angry protest last Thursday night expressing their opposition to and anger over the kidnapping of 17 soldiers from the Palestinian Liberation Army (PLA) and their killing in cold blood near the Syrian city of Idlib.
The protest soon intensified when members of the Syrian security forces, in cooperation with members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) - General Command, tried to control the protest fearing that it would get out of hand.
“We don’t know who started firing first, but with our own eyes we saw the firing gradually increase, leading to the death and injury of tens of protesters. Afraid of getting injured, I dropped to the ground,” says Abu Nidal. Nine people died and tens of others were injured by live bullets “aimed at the heads and chests of protesters, shooting to kill,” confirmed Abu Jihad, a college student who participated in the protest.
The horror and death did not end there. Palestinians, who are used to turning the funerals of their martyrs into celebrations by marching with the caskets in the streets of the camps, gathered at noon on Friday, next to the Palestine Mosque, waiting for the caskets of the nine martyrs to arrive so they could pray and hold a funeral for them.
But the sensitivity of the situation forced the families of the martyrs to comply with the instructions of the Syrian security forces and bury their sons in the early morning without a funeral. The massed crowds erupted as the celebration of martyrdom they were waiting for morphed into an angry protest the likes of which had not been seen in the camp since the funeral of Abu Jihad (Khalil al-Wazir) in 1988. The youth of the camp chanted violently against the Syrian regime.
In the days following this large protest, that surpassed in its anger and acrimonious slogans the rebellious Syrian street, the camp went through a period of relative calm. Serious attempts were made by leaders of various factions and organizations of the Palestinian resistance to calm the situation down.
One of the leaders of the PFLP (who preferred not to give his name) explained in detail the population and demographic reality in the camp saying: “The camp is no longer a Palestinian closed enclave. There are areas in the camp where over 75 percent of the population are Syrians. The camp has truly become a model of coexistence and a shared destiny that brings the Palestinian refugees and their Syrian brothers together.”
He pointed out the constructional overlapping between the camp and the surrounding areas because “the residential buildings in both the camp and the surrounding neighborhoods have expanded, erasing any borders separating them from each other. It difficult now to restrict the protests and riots and security infractions to a specific area as happened over the past few days,” he said, alluding to the large-scale and ongoing security campaign conducted by units of the Syrian army in the neighborhoods surrounding the Yarmouk camp.
Confrontations moved to the streets of the camp when some members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) tried to escape the violence and hide among the Palestinian and Syrian camp residents. As usual, the military operations conducted by the Syrian army against the FSA and the terrorist gangs in the residential areas are accompanied by a real humanitarian tragedy as civilians try to flee the areas where there are clashes.
A short tour of the narrow streets of the Yarmouk camp that are far from the areas which have witnessed security tensions show a wave of internal displacement by poor families that managed to cross the line of fire. This led camp residents to open their homes and welcome their Syrian brothers. Most of the camp’s schools also opened their doors to host those displaced from the areas where there is bombardment.
“Perhaps it is a folly of fate that would turn only the poor areas in Syria into real battlefields,” says one person from the poor neighborhood of al-Tadamon who was displaced to the Yarmouk camp. When asked about the nature of the battle raging near his home, he realized that he was giving a statement to the press so he preferred to remain silent out of fear for which he found no convincing explanation.
“We always try to convince the residents and youth of the camp to stay neutral and not interfere in Syrian affairs but at the same time, we cannot prevent our Syrian brothers who live in al-Hajar al-Aswad or al-Tadamon or other neighborhoods from protesting peacefully in the camp. At the end of the day, this is their land and we are guests here,” says the leader in the PFLP, adding: “I have verified information that the Syrian youth in al-Hajar al-Aswad succeeded in exploiting the fervor and rage of the youth in the camp, turning the protest last Thursday over the death of 17 PLA soldiers into an anti-Syrian regime protest.”
This is not the first time that the Yarmouk camp has been the site of security incidents. There were well-organized assassination operations over the past few months against members and officers of the PLA.
“Perhaps it is a clear attempt to entangle the Palestinian refugees in the Syrian crisis,” says Palestinian journalist Anis, adding: “It is indeed strange to accuse a Palestinian of betrayal, treason and ingratitude if he presents an opinion or a testimony that conflicts with the convictions of both parties of the Syrian conflict - the regime loyalists and the opposition.”
Anis expressed fear and concern over the tense atmosphere in the camp. “Palestinians are killed wherever they are and they are proud to die as martyrs at the hands of the Israeli army as happened last year in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights on the anniversary of the Nakba. But it is hard, if not impossible, to accept that even one Palestinian young man has died at the hands of the Syrian security, even if it is by mistake.”
He points out that “it is not the first time that an Arab regime has used the Palestinian cause for political gain to support its presence and its position. We are sick and tired of having our cause and our blood exploited,” emphasizing, “the fraternity and coexistence between the Palestinian refugees and their Syrian brothers in the Yarmouk camp.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.