BEIRUT (AP) — Like other communities sucked into Syria’s widening civil war, the Yarmouk neighborhood in Damascus has seen death and destruction. Soldiers and snipers have gunned down demonstrators. Some protesters have taken up arms to fight back.
But there’s one key difference: Most of Yarmouk’s residents are not Syrian citizens. They are Palestinian refugees.
Since the start of the unrest, Syria’s half-million Palestinians have struggled to remain on the sidelines. They’ve said they have little to gain and much to lose by taking sides in the fight between President Bashar Assad’s regime and the armed rebels seeking to end his family’s four-decade rule.
But young Palestinian refugees, enraged by this month’s mounting violence and moved by Arab Spring calls for greater freedoms, are now flooding the streets and even joining the rebels despite efforts by the community’s political leadership to keep them out of the conflict.
Large protests began two weeks ago in the country’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, Yarmouk, a neighborhood of nearly 150,000 refugees crowded into simple apartment buildings on narrow streets in the Syrian capital. Security forces fired on the protesters, killing at least five and setting off a cycle of funerals, demonstrations and further crackdowns.
On Thursday, activists said troops posted outside Yarmouk were shelling the area, likely in preparation for a raid.
“There are cars that have blown up and homes that have blown up,” a Palestinian activist in Yarmouk who gave his name as Abu Omar said via Skype, booms audible in the background. “We are really in a war zone now.”
Violence has struck other Palestinian camps too. More than two-thirds of the 17,500 refugees in the southern city of Daraa fled an attack this month, the U.N. said. While many have returned, food and medicine are lacking.
The U.N. says it cannot provide death tolls for Palestinians because of the difficulty of confirming information. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that about 150 have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011. Palestinian activists provided the names of 198 people killed, 67 in July alone.
Most of Syria’s 496,000 U.N.-registered Palestinian refugees are descended from those who fled or were forced to leave their homes during the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948. Others have come during subsequent Mideast wars.
While not citizens, Palestinians in Syria have greater rights than their brethren in other Arab countries. They can hold government jobs, attend state universities for free and serve in the military. Assad’s regime has long billed itself as a champion of the Palestinian cause.
But the Syrian uprising, which began with political protests and has evolved into a civil war, has put the Palestinians in a bind. As the death toll spiraled, many were horrified by Assad’s brutal attempts to crush the opposition but didn’t want turn on a government that treated them well.
“On the individual level, there’s no love for the regime or its tools of oppression, and no one thinks that it will liberate Palestine for us,” said a Palestinian refugee expert in Lebanon who visited Syria this month. “The idea is that if we take a position on one side or the other, we’ll get screwed.”
He declined to give his name because he travels frequently to Syria.
The political leadership, dominated by older men from an array of Palestinian factions, recalls all too easily how Palestinians elsewhere have suffered for picking sides in foreign conflicts. Kuwait kicked out hundreds of thousands of Palestinians near the end of the first Gulf War because of their leadership’s links to Saddam Hussein.
“I fear that in the next stage the camps and the youth will be pulled into the internal conflict,” said Fathi Ardat, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s top official in Lebanon. “We don’t want to be part of that battle.”
Some factions have cooled relations with Assad’s regime.
Top Hamas officials have decamped from their longtime Damascus headquarters for Egypt and the Gulf. In a February sermon in Cairo, Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas Prime Minister of Gaza, praised Syrians for “moving toward democracy and reform.”
The only group firmly with the regime is the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, which the U.S. and other countries consider a terrorist organization — as they do Hamas. Its fighters are widely accused of joining Assad’s forces in the crackdown.
To date, no Palestinian faction has denounced the regime, putting them at odds with Palestinian youth in Syria.
The forces pulling young Palestinians into the war grew stronger this month.
On July 11, the bodies of 15 soldiers from the Palestinian Liberation Army, a branch of the Syrian armed forces, were found outside of Aleppo, the country’s largest city. There were conflicting accusations about who killed the soldiers, but many Palestinians blamed Assad’s regime.
On July 13, hundreds of Palestinians protested in Yarmouk, accusing Assad’s forces of killing the soldiers and calling for the regime’s ouster because of its brutality toward other Syrians. Security forces opened fire on the crowd, according to amateur videos posted online, and activists say five people were killed.
Protests continued as rebels pushed into the capital from the countryside and clashed with security forces in surrounding neighborhoods, sending civilians streaming into the camp. The U.N. said this week that more than 7,000 displaced people were staying in 17 schools in Yarmouk.
On July 19, rebels — including some Palestinians — torched a police station on the camp’s edge and a dozen security cars posted around it.
As violence entered the camp, more youth joined in.
“At first, most people said we won’t interfere because this is a problem between Syrians,” said Mohammed, a refugee from Yarmouk who now lives in Britain. “Later, more said it was about freedom, so it doesn’t matter where you’re from.”
While most have avoided arms, some Palestinians have joined the rebels in battle.
“They have taken a position with the revolution, but they have not made this public because that could bring a massacre to the camp,” said a Syrian rebel near Yarmouk who gave his name as Abu Qusay.
Ironically, Palestinian activists say it was their integration into Syrian society — facilitated by Assad’s regime — that pushed them into the uprising.
“We have never felt that there was a big difference between the Palestinians and the Syrians,” said Abu Omar, the Yarmouk activist. He is 22, has spent his whole life in Syria and was getting a free university education when the uprising broke out.
He dismissed the idea that Assad’s regime has been a leader in the Palestinian struggle, pointing out that Syria’s border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights has been largely quiet since 1974.
In fact, he said he hoped a regime change would help the Palestinians achieve their ultimate goal: the return to their ancestral villages in what is now Israel.
“We have to work together with the free people to liberate Syria, then we’ll go to the Golan and liberate Palestine,” he said. “We’ll work hand in hand.”
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press