Syria: Palestinians caught between both sides

Large protests began two weeks ago in Syria’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, Yarmouk, an enclave of nearly 150,000 within Damascus. Security forces fired on protesters, killing at least five and setting off a cycle of funerals, demonstrations and further crackdowns—which in recent days has escalated to shelling of the camp. Similar violence has hit other Palestinian camps in Syria. More than two-thirds of the 17,500 refugees in the southern city of Daraa fled an attack last month, the UN reported. While many have returned, the camp is under siege, with food and medicine in short supply. Palestinian activists provided AP with the names of 198 refugees killed since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011—67 in July alone. The Palestinian Authority places the number of Palestinians killed in Syria since the start of the uprising as high as 300.

Most of Syria’s 496,000 UN-registered Palestinian refugees are descended from those who fled or were forced from their homes during the war of 1948. Others came during the 1967 war. While not citizens, Palestinians in Syria have greater rights than their brethren in other Arab countries, allowed to hold government jobs, attend state universities for free and serve in the military. Assad’s regime has long posed as a champion of the Palestinian cause, despite its bitter rift with Fatah, the leading faction in the PLO and the Palestinian Authority. But earlier this year, Hamas quietly vacated its Damascus offices, after being pressed by the regime and opposition alike to take sides in the conflict.  

Palestinian factions openly allied with Assad have been targeted by the Syrian rebels, despite efforts to avoid involvement in the conflict. In the worst incident, 16 members of the Palestine Liberation Army were killed after rebel gunmen stopped their bus, reported the Jerusalem Post on July 20. “The bodies of the Palestinians, whose throats had been slashed, were later discovered in an open field in the suburbs of Damascus,” according to the report. A statement issued on July 16 by the Free Syria Army joint command to AFP news agency called pro-regime Palestinian leaders on Syrian soil “legitimate targets.” (AP, July 27; Al-Bawaba, July 25)

A year ago, the Palestinian refugee camp at Latakia came under bombardment by Syrian government forces.

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