The bloody toll taken by the ongoing civil war in Syria has affected Palestinian refugees along with millions of Syrians. Fighting between the Syrian government and rebels has spilled over into Palestinian refugee camps, which are highly integrated with Syria’s urban centers.
A new account due to be published in the forthcoming issue of the Journal of Palestine Studies details the plight of the Palestinians in Syria (it can be read online now – Update, January 2015: JPS appears to have taken the PDF offline, but here is another link to the text of the article).
Its author Nidal Bitari is sympathetic to the March 2011 Syrian uprising and forcefully condemns the crimes of the government. He also takes a critical view of armed rebel groups and their crimes. For example, Bitari says that, to facilitate their entry, rebels planned to plant car bombs in Yarmouk camp.
On the edge of the capital Damascus, Yarmouk is the largest Palestinian refugee camp in the country. Before the war Yarmouk was home to about 150,000 Palestinians. The Syrian rebel invasion of the camp in December 2012 led to rebel abuses against Palestinians, and the government has bombed and relentlessly shelled the camp.
The only-recently-eased siege on Yarmouk, established by government forces in July 2013, has reportedly led to dozens of deaths through malnutrition.
Himself a Palestinian refugee from Yarmouk, Bitari left for Lebanon in December 2011. He is now in the United States, where the journal is published, and has been speaking there about the issue.
A journalist and, as noted, an anti-regime activist, Bitari’s extensive article is a nuanced look at the entire story of the Palestinian refugees in Syria. He starts from the context of how Israel’s 1948 ethnic cleansing led to the establishment of refugee camps, and how the situation of the Palestinian refugees in Syria before the outbreak of the crisis in March 2011, was relatively good – certainly much better than in Lebanon where Palestinians are marginalized by the state.
Rebel forces which eventually invaded Yarmouk included Jabhat al-Nusra, an armed group which al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zahwahiri recognizes as his affiliate in Syria.
The UN says that the war has created 2.3 million new refugees. The Palestinians among these are refugees at least twice over: the UN Relief and Works Agency says that only 18,000 now remain in Yarmouk.
In the course of the conflict, over 136,000 people have been killed, according to the latest tally by the UK-based opposition group the Syrian Observatory For Human Rights. According to these figures, more pro-regime fighters have been killed (53,776) than civilians (47,988). The reliability of the SOHR’s figures has been questioned in the past, not least by this writer, but it is the most widely-used count in reports by mainstream media and human rights groups.
Much of the reporting from Syria in the last three years has suffered from being conducted from outside the country, a necessity of the gruesome circumstances of the conflict. Bitari’s study gives an insider’s perspective – one of a Palestinian refugee.
As Bitari has been out of the country for some time, his article too is not immune from these weaknesses. For the latter part of his account, it is rarely clear who his sources are, though it notes he has been in daily contact with friends and colleagues in the camp since he left.
Bitari clearly witnessed much in his account, including the widespread early consensus in Yarmouk on all sides that the camp should be kept neutral.
The study is an honest attempt to makes some sense out of the chaotic and bloody situation in Syria.
Despite its limitations, it is because such accounts have been so difficult to obtain that it nonetheless remains notable.
Bitari’s article is a sad account of the Palestinian refugees’ lost battle to avoid being consumed by the Syrian civil war. It is also an opportunity to reflect on what the last three years of conflict in Syria has meant for the Palestinians there.
The Nakba and Naksa killings
Bitari witnessed some of what happened in May and June 2011, when unarmed Palestinian protesters attempted to cross the ceasefire line from Syria into Israeli-occupied Palestine via the Syrian Golan Heights (also occupied by Israel). During the first attempt, Israel killed three protesters.
During the June event, the Israelis were better prepared, and managed to kill 23. Bitari says that same night a meeting was called by the “Youth Coalition,” an activist group with which he was involved that formed after the start of the Syrian uprising.
He says: “There was a huge anger in Yarmouk about the deaths and the hundreds of wounded — people felt they had been used by the regime, which they held responsible for facilitating access to the border and then not providing any backup.”
Considering that the regime never allowed such demonstrations until after the uprising started, such suspicions are understandable. However, Bitari presents conflicting evidence: soon before the day, “Damascus made known through the PFLP-GC that the protests had been called off.” Close to the Syrian regime, the Popular Front For the Liberation of Palestine - General Command is a separate organization from the more well known PFLP.
The Youth Coalition then decided that “to defuse the situation,” the funerals of those killed by the Israelis would have to double as a demonstration. Held the next day, this turned out to be more than 30,000-strong, “by far the largest ever held in the camp,” Bitari writes.
This soon “got out of hand.” Some protesters “started rampaging” and a huge crowd surrounded the office of the PFLP-GC. One of the guards fired at the unarmed crowd and killed a 14-year-old boy named Rami Siyam, and other PLFP-GC guards began shooting from the roof.
The crowd reacted angrily and and began “setting fire to cars, and thousands stormed the building. [PFLP-GC leader] Ahmad Jibril and his top deputies had to be rescued by the Syrian army, and PFLP-GC reinforcements were called in from Lebanon.”
The Electronic Intifada reported at the time on some of the scattered information that was making its way out of the camp. We posted some YouTube videos apparently from this incident, along with a Ma’an News Agency report that put the death toll at 14. However, Bitari writes that this figure “was totally false” and that the actual death toll was three, including one PFLP-GC member who died in the fire when the office was set alight.
The following day, The Electronic Intifada published a follow-up report, including the confusion around the death toll.
Bitari writes that the great majority of the Palestinian people in Syria instinctively understood the need for neutrality to safeguard themselves. Before the uprising, the Palestinian camps were almost totally unarmed.
The Electronic Intifada’s regular contributor Patrick O. Strickland interviewed Mahmoud al-Shihabi, a Palestinian who fled Yarmouk after the rebel invasion. As he put it: “I don’t care who wins the fight in Syria – the opposition or the regime – because I’m Palestinian. All I care about is returning to Palestine … For now I’m staying in Texas. But if I could go back to Palestine tomorrow, I’m gone.”
But eventually the neutrality of the camps began to break down.
In August 2011, Bitari notes, the regime clamped down on what it said were armed groups operating out of al-Ramel camp in Latakiya. A number of people were killed in the government’s assault, which Bitari describes as a watershed in the conflict as a whole.
Immediately after, “on 17 August, Yarmouk camp held its first demonstration against the regime that was directly related to the uprising,” and Bitari took part. However, only about 300 people attended, “the protests were mostly staged by displaced Syrians” and after the first, the numbers “were insignificant.”
Pro-regime protests also apparently occurred in the camp around this time.
After this, Bitari says, pro-regime Palestinian groups in the camp began to arm themselves: “in late summer or early autumn 2011, Ahmad Jibril’s PFLP-GC distributed weapons to 1,100 of his men in Yarmouk.”
A minority in the Youth Coalition then wanted to start helping the rebels. A majority, according to Bitari, thought this “would end our claim to neutrality and endanger the camp.”
Confusingly, a decision was reached that “anybody who wanted to get involved in the Syrian revolution was free to do so, but on a completely individual basis … This decision was probably the Youth Coalition’s last: before the end of the year, we had disbanded because of the growing differences.”
Gateway to Damascus
Bitari says “a growing minority of young Palestinian activists” started to make contacts with the opposition, apparently including the “Free Syrian Army” (a loose association of anti-government armed groups).
In late spring 2012 they had to cut these ties off after “the FSA began floating the idea of planting car bombs inside the camp to get residents to invite them in for protection. At that point, even these strongly anti-regime young people could not continue the ‘coordination.’”
The attack took place on the same day that twin-explosions ripped through downtown Damascus – an attack which killed 27 people, mostly civilians, and was later claimed by Jabhat al-Nusra.
In July, a group of about 13 unarmed Palestine Liberation Army soldiers were reportedly tortured to death by suspected rebels. (The PLA is a unit of the Syrian army consisting of conscripted Palestinians). Hamas condemned the “ugly” killings.
Back to Bitari’s account: on one side, the regime was putting more pressure, via the PFLP-GC, for the camps to show support for the government. On the other side, “the FSA was doing everything it could to involve Palestinians in the opposition with the ultimate aim of getting inside Yarmouk.”
The camp was considered a strategic southern gateway for any rebel assault on Damascus.
Polarization and factional divisions started to set in, where they had not existed before. In summer 2012, “the rebels, who seemed to be making gains in the area, became more and more determined to get into the camp, sooner rather than later, ostensibly to expel the Jibril people.”
The rebels enter the camp
As The Electronic Intifada reported at the time, on 2 August 2012 fighting in neighborhoods abutting Yarmouk spilled over into the camp.
UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for supporting (but not repatriating) Palestinian refugees, stated that “intensive armed engagements” in those neighbourhoods led to the death of 21 Palestinians in the camp, “apparently caused by artillery shells.”
Spokesperson Chris Gunness did not indicate who may have been responsible for the shelling, but appealed to “all sides to preserve human life and to act with restraint and in accordance with international law.”
Bitari (who had by this point escaped to Lebanon) describes “informal contacts” with the FSA, and talk of the formation of Palestinian brigades that would assume responsibility for the camp once the PFLP-GC had been ousted.
But this was short lived, since the FSA “had no interest in the kind of independent force the Palestinians had in mind.”
More importantly, he writes, “the FSA leaders had their own reasons for wanting to enter the camp and had no intention of leaving it once they got in … the FSA insisted on the complete subordination of any Palestinian brigade to rebel command. For the Palestinians of Syria, this was a non-starter … the talks went nowhere.”
Until December 2012, Bitari says, pro-regime Palestinian fighters had stayed inside the camp, and had not used their weapons against rebels. But then they made the “fatal mistake” of establishing checkpoints in two Damascus neighborhoods adjoining Yarmouk.
On 16 December, the government killed 10 people inside the camp with a fighter-jet bombing. They later claimed this was an error. According to Bitari, the FSA, fighting alongside al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, invaded the camp the following day.
However, according to one former Yarmouk activist interviewed by The Electronic Intifada in Lebanon last year, “The Free Syrian Army officially entered the camp on 15 December 2012” (however this discrepancy is most likely best explained as a mis-remembered date, since the former activist also says the MiG bombing occurred before the FSA entered).
The FSA and Nusra soon prevailed in the battle for the camp. Despite backup from Syrian regular forces, the PFLP-GC was forced to retreat to the camp’s northern outskirts. From then on, Bitari says, “all hope of keeping the camp neutral was lost.”
Rebel abuses in Yarmouk
An exodus of civilians from the camp ensued: “Under the combined impact of the MiG [fighter] bombing and the entry of the FSA, tens of thousands of people fled, reducing the camp population to the low five-digits by some estimates.”
The rebels became more and more abusive to those who remained. “Some brought in friends and relatives to squat in empty houses; looting and robberies became common. Jabhat al-Nusra set up Islamic courts, and Palestinian activists were arrested and tried.”
In a talk last week hosted by the Palestine Center in Washington DC, Bitari elaborated on these abuses.
The armed groups “stole a lot of houses and three hospitals … have been stolen by them,” he said. “They took also the medical equipment, also they stole food to their areas out of the camps. This is an additional reason why there is starvation inside the camp … [they] started to sell it at very high prices … a lot of people starved and died because they don’t have money.”
Rebel attitudes towards Palestinians, even towards the minority in the camp who were sympathetic towards them, seem to have been arrogant and xenophobic. Bitari writes:
From the start of the uprising, Palestinians in contact with the Syrian opposition repeatedly asked that it issue a clear statement on its position on the Palestine question; these requests were repeatedly turned down … After the FSA entered the camp, residents were shocked to hear rebel fighters telling them to go back where they had come from … [later during negotiations] the FSA reportedly rejected a proposal that all armed men leave the camp on the grounds that the rebels were fighting for their land, and that [Palestinian] camps were on their land [in Syria].
Although Hamas’s leadership had by this time fled Syria, the group’s supporters in the camp, whom Bitari writes had once “openly” supported the rebels (and at times even fought with them) began to turn against the rebels.
In March 2013 they began to receive arms from outside the camp. By summer, they had expelled some of the worst rebel brigades and arrested their leaders.
To make this bloody and chaotic situation worse: “The FSA and Jabhat al-Nusra soon began fighting each other, and some of the FSA brigades were also quarrelling among themselves.”
In May 2013, Sky News filmed as a group of pro-government Palestinian protesters attempted to re-enter the camp, accompanied by the Syrian army. The rebels opened fire and a battle ensued. The army later claimed to have killed 10 rebels.
As Bitari notes, in July 2013, the camp was put under a total siege by the regime, in an effort to expel the rebels. As The Electronic Intifada has recently reported, food and medical aid was barred from entering the camp by the Syrian government.
At the 6 February Palestine Center talk, Christopher McGrath, UNRWA’s Senior Liaison Officer in the US said: “Until just the last few days we’ve had virtually no access to Yarmouk since September , and very little access in the seven months prior.” Some 18,000 Palestinians refugees remain remain besieged today, he said.
According to McGrath, malnutrition is rife and, “our efforts throughout the last several months have been hindered by the systematic closure of all the access points to the camp and the presence of armed groups since December 2012.”
The siege was only eased very recently. McGrath said the amount of aid now getting into the camp was “insufficient but getting better by the day.” There has been success in bringing in aid through northern entrance and small numbers of people have now been able to leave the camp, he said.
Also at the talk, Bitari said that PLO diplomatic efforts launched out of Ramallah combined with international campaigns against the siege made the regime change its mind, and begin to allow in some aid.
Who is to blame?
Bitari concludes on an understandably pessimistic note:
We heard much about the  Nakba from our parents and grandparents, about their suffering when forced to leave their country, at having lost everything. They worked hard to build their lives in Syria, and what they built is destroyed. And now we, the third generation, are experiencing this also, of starting from zero in other countries, but this time individually, without any help, and unable to stay together as a community. Not to mention that most don’t know where to go, and everything is up in the air, uncertain, a question mark.
In the Palestine Center talk, he elaborated on this, reflecting on the plight of the Palestinian refugees since 1948: “Every ten years we have such a situation,” from the Black September massacres by the Jordanian regime in 1970, to the Israeli-led massacres in Sabra and Shatilia in 1982, to the hundreds of thousands kicked out of Kuwait in the early 1990s, to the Palestinians driven out of Iraq after the 2003 US invasion, to the disaster of Yarmouk today.
When the conflict in Syria eventually ends, Syrians will have a (shattered) country to return to. Palestinian refugees have still not been permitted to return to Palestine, after 66 years.
Bitari mentioned a recent article in Haaretz by Gideon Levy which stated that Israel is “the real reason for what is going on in Yarmouk camp now. And maybe it’s true … they are the reason that we are now refugees, and suffering.”
As Palestine Center executive director Yousef Munayyer put it: “We don’t want to hold another panel about this issue 10 years from now … there’s one place where these people come from and it’s Palestine, and there’s one state that is preventing them from returning … I would humbly suggest allowing them to return to their homes.”