Palestinian refugees living in Syria (around 630 thousand people) found themselves in the heart of the Syrian crisis. Many of them are living a new Nakbah (catastrophe) by any standard. Around 270 thousand of them have sought shelter in safer places in Syria, while more than 100 thousand fled abroad. The rest remain under siege and under fire.
It does not seem that the possible near term scenarios carry positive prospects for the Palestinians in Syria. Whether the conflict continues or the Syrian state disintegrate into sectarian and ethnic entities, their suffering will continue, and their numbers will decline.
The deterioration of conditions of Palestinians in Syria could stop if the rival parties, with support from regional and international actors, reach a political settlement that preserves the Syrian state and its unity. However, for the Palestinian situation to return to its previous state in Syria is incumbent upon a number of factors fundamentally related to the form of the new regime, its strength, and its political orientations, as well as its ability to deal with external pressures and dictates. As for the scenario that would see revival and unity, albeit desirable, remains out of reach in the current stage.
It remains that a unified Palestinian reference frame that has a sound political vision and approach to the situation of the refugees there, can help thwart plots to eliminate their cause and presence in their refugee camps (RCs) and in Syria in general.
Before the start of the unrest and conflict in Syria in the spring of 2011, around 560 thousand Palestinians lived in the country, most of whom refugees from the 1948 war.
The number was projected to rise to 630 thousand in 2015, were it not for the bloody turn of events. The Palestinians in Syria have enjoyed since the mid-1950s all civil rights that Syrians have, with the exception of Syrian nationality and the right to vote.
Since the start of the Syrian crisis in Dar‘a, official Palestinian activity was restricted to humanitarian affairs. For many months, it seemed that Palestinian involvement in the Syrian crisis was low-key, but the Palestinians were being increasingly affected by the events.
As protests spread and expanded, so did the effect on Palestinians, as happened in the RCs of Homs, Aleppo, and Latakia. The major shift took place when the wave of protests and clashes spread to the Syrian capital Damascus and its countryside, home to the bulk of the Palestinian refugees.
This more or less continued until the regime used fighter jets on 16/12/2012 to bomb ‘Abdul-Qadir Husseini mosque, which was sheltering more than 500 refugees, mostly women and children, killing more than 160. This event proved to be a turning point in the Palestinian humanitarian role vis-à-vis the brethren in Syria, as more than 80% of the RC people and the refugees there were forced to move.
The Palestinians were divided between supporters of the Assad regime and supporters of the demands of the protesters, each with their own justifications and arguments. A segment stood on the side of the regime and another of the opposition, but none as part of a Palestinian national vision or consensus.
Many Palestinians were killed under bombardment, some while providing assistance and others thanks to their geographic location. In the beginning, the choice the Palestinians made was clear, namely, not to interfere in the internal affairs in the confrontation between the regime and the opposition. Both sides were in favor of keeping Palestinians neutral, because of the symbolism of their cause for the entire Syrian people, and most Syrians understood Palestinian self-dissociation.
Yet this does not mean that some oppositionists did not attack the Palestinians for “ingratitude” by not siding with the people. Some Syrian regime officials criticized them and alleged they were part of a “conspiracy” against Syria and its “pro-resistance” role. With the evolution of the situation, a senior official without specifying them by name called on the Palestinians to respect the traditions of hospitality.
Most Palestinian figures and organizations were unanimously opposed to letting RCs become hotspots and be drawn into the armed conflict. They wanted to focus on the relief role in supporting those affected and the displaced, and providing them with shelter and assistance.
Since mid-2013, the regime has imposed a crippling siege on the Yarmouk RC and nearby ones, such as Sabina and Husseiniya. The people there have paid a price for their humanitarian position and work in support of their Syrian brethren, and suffered immensely in many forms, including abductions, bombardment, besiegement, and execution at checkpoints. The Palestinian RCs in Syria in general also suffered from the lack of basic needs, such as bread, fuel, electricity, healthcare, and communications.
The conflict has caused repeated displacement in most Palestinian RCs and communities, and hit the social fabric of the Palestinian refugees in the country, many of whom fled outside Syria. According to UNRWA estimates, around 270 thousand Palestinians have been displaced inside Syria, and over 100 thousand to other countries.
Some RCs in Syria have since become battle zones, while others came under tight siege by the regular army and loyalist Palestinian factions such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC), Palestinian Popular Struggle Front (PPSF), and Fatah al-Intifadah, on the grounds that opposition forces are abetted by RCs. These forces combined have played a key role in strangling the RCs, creating tragic living conditions for the refugees and the residents, especially after their stocks of basic needs such as food, water, and medicine were depleted.
On the other hand, many residents in Yarmouk were made to suffer at the hands of opposition factions and the Free Syrian Army. Hundreds of homes were looted, occupied, damaged, or burned down based on allegations regarding the pro-regime affiliation of their owners.
Many threats were made against them, causing resentment and frustration among the population, with calls and statements issued appealing for an end to the violations against the people. This did not happen only in Yarmouk, but also in RCs like Khan al-Sheikh, and al-Nairab and Handarat in the governorates of Damascus and Aleppo respectively at various points of time.
The most prominent development took place in 2015, when the Islamic State group invaded the Yarmouk RC. Afterwards, the camp faced a humanitarian disaster, though we should note that throughout the siege before and after, there were many calls to lift it and the bombardment of the camp to end. There were many attempts and initiatives to end the RC’s plight and return the displaced, but they failed.
Involving the Palestinians in the battle did not do much to alter the balance of power between the opposition and the regime. However, it had a negative effect on the conditions of the displaced and the refugees.
It benefited Israel’s plans to destroy Syria and dispossess the Palestinians away from surrounding countries to faraway places. The Palestinian role should have remained limited to a humanitarian role, which would have served the Syrian people immensely given their lack of options in their time of crisis. The truth is that the Palestinian numbers in Syria (2.5% of the population) does not have much weight on the ground, and their influence lies in the symbolism of their cause.
In general, around 2,900 Palestinians died in Syria by late June 2015.
Most Palestinians in Syria did not want to pack their bags and move overseas, away from Syria that had opened its arms to them, especially since they still dream of returning to Palestine with the help of their Syrian brethren.
Palestinian Syrians who were forced to go to Lebanon, currently estimated at 52 thousand, are in a particularly dire situation as a result of tough living conditions there for a number of reasons, including the fact that they are treated as tourists and the measures that makes their entry from Syria difficult and complicated.
The situation is no better in Jordan. Until the moment of writing, Palestinian Syrian refugees are banned from entering Jordan legally, though 11 thousand of them have made it into the country in one way or the other. Around 120 Palestinian Syrian refugees are living in the Cyber City complex in bad conditions, and are banned from leaving or even communicating with the outside world according to reports.
In Turkey, the authorities refused to grant Palestinian Syrians a regular visa. The estimated number of Palestinians in Turkey is six thousand, 75% of whom live in the southern provinces and the rest in Istanbul. The largest Palestinian Syrian community outside the RCs is in Kilis, and in Mardin if we count the camps.
Palestinian refugees from Syria also travelled to a number of European countries, seeking safety and dignity. Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Austria, Belgium, Britain, and France are among the top destinations for them, with up to 36 thousand Palestinian refugees from Syria making their way there. Many of them died, however, during attempts to seek asylum in Europe on the so-called “death boats” or illegal migration boats. On 11/10/2013, around 200 Palestinian refugees from Syria drowned. On 6/9/2014, a boat carrying 400 refugees, including a large number of Palestinian Syrians, capsized and only 11 survived.
Those among them who chose to leave faced many hurdles along the road, forcing them to issue dozens of appeals from inside European prisons, including in Cyprus, Greece, Serbia, Macedonia, and Poland…, or Arab prisons including in the UAE, Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco where they have been detained on charges of illegal immigration.
Some refugees thought their problems would be solved and their fears eliminated as soon as they arrive in Europe. However, they would soon hit many obstacles. In Italy, they were fingerprinted, to implement the Dublin treaty, which requires deporting back asylum seekers to the first country they were fingerprinted in. They had to wait residence permit, which could take more than a year, delaying family reunions.
In addition, families in Syria found it difficult to reach European embassies in Lebanon or Turkey, as Turkey bans them from entering and Lebanon imposes strict measures for their entry. In addition, there are problems related to language and high cost of transportation, and the lack of a clear entity that represents Palestinian Syrians and that can follow up their problems and issues and advises them on the nature of the communities in which they live.
Thus, the Palestinians found themselves in the heart of the Syrian crisis, and most of them are living nothing short of a new Nakbah.
Analyzing the regional and international scenes and attempts to resolve the conflict in Syria, and the implications for the future of Palestinian refugees in Syria, highlights the importance of Palestinian communication with all actors involved, to mitigate the potential adverse effects on the future of the refugees.
Without doubt, after four years of the conflict, the configuration of the region has started to change dramatically. People in the region will not return as they were, either because they rebelled, because they were brutalized by the regimes, because they suffered at the hands of extremist and sectarian militias, or because they were forced to flee and seek asylum. National borders have started losing their sanctity, and regimes have started to collapse while the regional map is being redrawn.
Events show that the United States and Israel are interested in the prolongation of the conflict in Syria, with a view to tear its social fabric and promote sectarian and ethnic conflicts. This is not to mention destroying the economy and infrastructure, all to preoccupy Syria for years to come and neutralize it in the conflict with Israel. This bid also serves the Israeli desire to create a climate that helps drive Palestinians out from the countries surrounding Israel.
On the other hand, there was rapprochement and increasing coordination between Saudi Arabia and Turkey (regarding Syria and support for some opposition factions since early 2015). This put more pressure on the Syrian regime, which suffered a number of setbacks on some fronts, and lost the momentum it had enjoyed in 2014. Iran and Hizbullah continue to provide military, intelligence, economic, and political support for the regime, which also continues to enjoy Russian support. This is helping the regime survive but not to settle the battle in its favor.
Therefore, the current war of attrition does not seem to be close to an endgame any time soon. This means the suffering of Palestinian refugees in Syria is set to continue for the foreseeable future. This is tremendous suffering, and one of the toughest experiences for Palestinians since 1948.
It appears that there are four main possible scenarios for the situation in Syria to progress along, each impacting Palestinians in Syria in one way or another:
1- First Scenario: The rival parties, and the regional and international actors, realize that no side can settle the war in its favor. A political settlement is pushed that would preserve the Syrian state and accommodate the demands of the main parties to the conflict. This would create a weak and unstable government, as it would attempt to represent the interests of rival parties.
The new regime could be forced to isolate itself and focus on rebuilding the economy and infrastructure, repairing social cohesion, and putting down the fires fueled by years of conflict including sectarian and ethnic fires. This situation carries the seed of another explosion, especially if some parties insist on their priorities and interests.
This situation, although stable on the surface, will bring worrisome implications for Palestinian refugees in Syria. They could find themselves victims to political maneuvers or external pressures, with the Palestinian issue sliding on the list of priorities and agendas of the putative Syrian regime. However, at the same time, it might allow many Palestinians to return home and resume their normal lives, though it is possible they would lose some of the privileges they enjoyed.
2- Second Scenario: The Syrian state disintegrates into weak mini-states formed on sectarian or ethnic foundations (Sunni, Alawite, Druze, Kurd, etc.). This raises questions for the future of Palestinian refugees in those mini-states, as they would have to be re-identified as Sunnis or Arabs, and relocated accordingly.
The Palestinians would be completely subject to the nature of the new Syrian entities and will be governed by their agendas and programs, which inevitably will not have the same attitudes towards Palestinians.
This scenario would require concerted efforts and coordination between Palestinian elements across these entities, or risk fragmenting the Palestinians. Some of the new entities could seek help from foreign powers to preserve themselves, giving Israel and the United States the opportunity to impose agendas with negative implications for Palestinians. The new entities could also be hostile to the majority-Sunni Palestinians on a sectarian basis.
This is a dangerous scenario not just for Palestinians in Syria but for the entire Palestinian issue as a whole. Palestinians may pay the price for this in the form of further suffering, displacement, and reduced rights.
3- Third Scenario: The conflict continues between expansion and retreat in the near term. For some years to come, Syria continues to be a hotspot of tension and settling of scores between local, regional, and international parties. This would spell continued suffering in Syria for both Syrians and Palestinian refugees, who will continue to decline in number as they seek new homes. The Palestinian community in Syria would atrophy and decline greatly.
4- Fourth Scenario: A revival and unity scenario materializes, overcoming sectarian and ethnic dimensions. A new compact is proposed that would accommodate everyone, and express the will of the peoples beyond dictatorship and foreign intervention. This would create a new opportunity for the Palestinian issue, which enjoys great support from the nation. However, this scenario requires strong actors on the ground who can realize it, as various forces come to understand the dangers of the other scenarios.
The likely scenario is that the suffering of Palestinian refugees in Syria would continue for the next 2 to 3 years at least. The third scenario has the greatest odds, with the conflict and instability continuing, until the rival parties move decisively towards the first and second scenarios. The fourth scenario has low odds at present, but they could increase slowly in the near term as the actors come to accept its worth, with the moderate Islamist and patriotic forces being able to present a civilized model in this direction, in light of the full disillusionment with other options. The odds would also increase if the coup in Egypt fails, and the anti-Islamism wave in the region stops or reverses.
1- There is a need to establish a unified Palestinian reference frame with a unified political vision and approach to the plight of the refugees in Syria. They should be protected and kept neutral, with specific determinants for their role in the country, which are countering and foiling projects to liquidate the refugee question, and preventing the exploitation of Palestinian refugees in Syria in the battles of the rival parties in the region.
2- Preserving the rights and gains of Palestinian refugees, and the moral standing of the refugee Palestinian population especially in the countries with borders with Palestine, and serving them, siding with them, and defending their rights in their countries of residence.
3- There is an urgent need to demarcate the relationship between Palestinian refugees and the host political regimes, as part of ensuring official and popular support for the right of return and the liberation of occupied Palestine, in a way where Palestinians would not be used as fodder in battles and contradictions at home and abroad.
4- Serious effort must be made to launch organizations that care for the families of Palestinian who were killed, wounded, and disabled, as well as reactivating and upgrading existing ones.
5- Establishing a legal team to follow up the affairs of Palestinian detainees, and wanted fugitives in Syria and beyond, and social work teams from tribes and clans in preparation for communal reconciliations.
6- Activating the role of UNRWA in support of refugees and the provision of all their needs.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Mr. Maher Shawish for authoring the original text of this strategic assessment, which was based on a panel discussion of experts held by the center in Beirut.