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Roshan De Stone and David Suber

Syrian displacement: A Palestinian perspective

Shatila camp struggles with overcrowding as the influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon continues [Getty]

Date of publication: 7 November, 2018

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While many Palestinians displaced from Syria are reluctant to return, fearful of arrest and government repercussions, others are confident life there will be better than staying in Lebanon.
Many Palestinians displaced to Syria after the Nakba of 1948 had never imagined facing another exile.

Now, three generations later, most Palestinians living in Syria have once again been forced to flee from their homes - this time escaping the civil war that has torn apart their host country.

Of the initial 560,000 Palestinians living in Syria at the start of the war, more than 400,000 are now displaced either inside or outside Syria, adding their fate to the wider question of the return of Syrian refugees.

Among those who left the country, more than 30,000 came to Lebanon, most moving to pre-existing Palestinian camps.

"It wasn't easy to accommodate the Palestinian refugees from Syria in our camps," begins Majdi. "But most of them had families and friends here."

Majdi is a Palestinian resident of Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, one of the most overcrowded neighbourhoods of the Lebanese capital.

The Shatila refugee camp was established by the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1949 to accommodate the hundreds of refugees who came from Palestine after the 1948 exodus.

Located in southern Beirut, and originally built for 3,000, the camp today struggles with overcrowding as the influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon continues. The current camp population is estimated to be around 22,000.

Shatila sits on approximately one square kilometre of land, and with no room to expand, the only option is to continually building on top of existing structures

"We [Palestinians in Lebanon] have our own problems with electricity and water shortages as well as unemployment. But we must share what little we have with our Palestinian brothers from Syria."

He paused. "We know all too well what it means to be a refugee."
We know all too well what it means to be a refugee

Palestinian refugees from Syria receive support from UNWRA, as opposed to other Syrian refugees, who fall under the mandate of the UNHCR.

For many Palestinian refugees from Syria, arriving in Lebanon was a shock. Abu Khaled owns a small shop on the hill of Beddawi, the Palestinian camp near Tripoli. He arrived in 2013, after militias took control of his home in Yarmouk, the largest Palestinian camp in the south of Damascus.

"Life in Syria was unimaginably better than here," Abu Khaled says. He worked as an engineer and electrician in Yarmouk, where he owned three properties; a privilege denied to Palestinians in Lebanon.

"My children had a good future in Syria, two of them were studying at university when the war broke out. The war changed everything. But I would go back tomorrow if I knew Yarmouk was going to be rebuilt."

This article is the third in a six-part series investigating the issues of return of Syrian refugees from Lebanon.

Read the first article here: Syrian refugees in Lebanon weigh the risks of returning against the risks of staying

Read the second article here: History reflected: Memories of Lebanese displacement to Syria dismissed by Lebanese calling for Syrians' repatriation

The Assad regime has long attempted to paint itself as the guardian of the Palestinian cause.

Aside from rights to nationality and political representation, Palestinians in Syria are accorded similar rights to Syrian nationals: education, work, property, freedom of movement.

"It is not like here in Lebanon where there are 72 professions we cannot do," says Abu Khaled. "There is not the same level of discrimination against Palestinians in Syria."

Combined with Assad's posturing against Israel, the treatment of Palestinians in Syria has led many to feel close to the regime.

Azma'a grew up in the camp of Burj Shemali in Tyre, a region in Lebanon dominated by the Shia Hizballah movement.

She has Syrian citizenship by virtue of a Syrian grandfather, but has proudly kept her Palestinian identity.

"We Palestinians should stand with the Syrian government, as they have shown to be the best Arab country when it comes to treatment of Palestinian refugees," she told The New Arab - despite the fact it was the regime's brutal violence that has displaced so many millions of Syrians in recent years.

The Shatila Refugee Camp was established by the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1949 to accommodate the hundreds of refugees who came from Palestine after 1948 [Getty]

Making regular visits to her family in Yarmouk, Asma'a was able to measure the difference between life in Lebanon and in Syria for Palestinian refugees.

Like many other Palestinians in Burj-Shemali, she is an advocate for the return of refugees to Syria once re-building gets underway. She sees no contradiction between her own family's displacement to Lebanon and her position on the matter.

"It wasn't the regime that destroyed Yarmouk, but the militias that occupied it," Asma'a explains.

"Now that the war is ending, the government wants people to return. They are giving people six months to get their affairs in order before being called to serve in the army."

The Syrian conflict began when the Baath regime, in power since 1963 and led by President Bashar al-Assad, responded with military force to peaceful protests demanding democratic reforms during the Arab Spring wave of uprisings, triggering an armed rebellion fuelled by mass defections from the Syrian army.

According to independent monitors, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed in the war, mostly by the Assad regime and his powerful allies. The brutal tactics pursued mainly by the regime, which have included the use of chemical weapons, sieges, mass executions and torture against civilians have led to war crimes investigations.

My children had a good future in Syria, two of them were studying at university when the war broke out. The war changed everything. But I would go back tomorrow if I knew Yarmouk was going to be rebuilt

Asma'a's brother took part in the siege of Eastern Ghouta last year, fighting alongside regime forces in the ranks of the Palestinian Liberation Army, allied to the regime since the beginning of the conflict.

When questioned further about the sieges of Palestinian refugee camps in Syria, she justified the government intervention as an act in support of the Palestinian people; resisting the infiltration and expansion of extremist groups such as the Nusra Front and the Islamic State group.

"It's like what happened in Nahr El Barid here in Lebanon," she says, referring to the 2006 destruction of the Nahr El Barid Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon, after intense fighting between the Lebanese army and militias who had infiltrated the camp.

"Once rebuilt, Palestinians from Syria should go back. But without forgetting that our goal is always to return to our real home in Palestine."

Her opinion is not uncommon amongst Palestinians in Burj Shemali and other Palestinian camps in Lebanon.

Nonetheless, a 2016 survey by the PCPSR showed widespread support for anti-regime forces significantly outweighing pro-regime support among Palestinians in Occupied Palestine.

Polarising the choice as one either for the secular Baath regime or for the Islamist opposition is a game played by most Palestinian political factions. Fatah's commitment to a stance of neutrality has been seen by many as tacit support for the regime. In last year's visit to the Khan Eshieh camp in Syria, Fatah's officials announced reconstruction plans, paving the way for normalising relations with the regime.

In opposition, Hamas has progressively taken an anti-regime stance, despite its closeness to Assad's long-term ally, Iran.

Other Palestinian groups have been involved as well. The PLFP have tended to provide aid to Palestinians in Syria but not publicly broken their support for Assad, while groups like the PLFP-GC, Jerusalem Brigade and Saiqa - the Palestinian faction of the Baathist Party - were actively involved in suppressing demonstrations and fighting for Assad.

All factions have been criticised by Palestinians across the political spectrum for not adequately protecting Palestinians in Syria throughout the conflict.

Willingly or not, Palestinians in Syria have felt war on their own skin. According to the Action Group for Palestinians in Syria, more than 4,000 Syrian-Palestinians have been killed during the conflict, with more than 1,000 currently detained in Syrian prisons.

The siege of Yarmouk is emblematic of Palestinian suffering during the war. In 2013 the camp was taken over by Islamic State group militants.

This provided the regime with the necessary justification to continue shelling operations already started the year before, and to justify a siege which killed thousands, through armed conflict, starvation and lack of medical treatment.

Yarmouk was the heart of Palestine in Syria... It was my city, and I will return one day, God willing, even if it is just rubble and dust
A member of the Syrian pro-government forces rides a bicycle through a damaged street in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp on the southern outskirts of the capital Damascus [Getty]

As in the neighbourhoods of Ghouta, Daraa, and many other Syrian cities, Yarmouk was under siege by government forces until earlier this year, when the army re-took control of Yarmouk and the neighbouring area of Hajar al-Aswad, driving away the last Islamic State group and al-Nusra militants towards Idlib.

And as in other Syrian towns, local residents here had to resist the expansion of extremist groups while under siege and surrounded by regime forces.

Yarmouk has paid its toll for the regime's total war on its own population, one which very much included its Palestinian guests.

While many Palestinians are reluctant to return, fearful of arrest and government repercussions, others are confident life in Syria will be better than staying in Lebanon.

"Yarmouk was the heart of Palestine in Syria," says Abu Khaled. "It was my city, and I will return one day, God willing, even if it is just rubble and dust."

 

Roshan De Stone is a human rights advocate working in Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon. She is a full-time contributor to Brush&Bow.

David L. Suber is a political researcher and journalist. He is directing a documentary on deportations from Europe and currently lives in Lebanon, where he works in refugee camps. David is a full-time contributor to Brush&Bow.

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