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Friday, July 27, 2012

Syria's Palestinian refugees strive in vain for neutrality


SEATTLE — "Flames are quickly approaching Yarmouk (as) someone is trying to drag the Palestinians into the fire," Palestinian observer Rashad Abu Shawar was quoted as saying in the Israeli Jerusalem Post, July 20.

Yarmouk is the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria. Its inhabitants make up nearly a quarter of Syria's entire refugee population of nearly 500,000. Despite the persistence of memory and the insistence on their right of return to Palestine, the Palestinian community in Syria is, on the whole, like any other ordinary community.

Of course, "ordinariness" is not always a term that suits misfortunate Palestinian refugees in Arab countries.

Ghassan Kanafani, the Palestinian novelist, once wrote: "Oh, Palestinians, be warned of natural death." He proudly articulated how his people are prepared for all possibilities. Kanafani himself was murdered, along with his niece, in a car bombing orchestrated by the Israeli Mossad in Beirut in July 1972.

Palestinian refugees in Syria also cannot expect to exist outside a paradigm of danger and unpredictability. Their brethren in Lebanon learned that lesson years ago. Palestinians in Kuwait were also victimized on a large scale in 1991, along with other communities accused of being sympathetic to Saddam Hussein. True to form, the small Palestinian community in Iraq also received its share of maltreatment following the U.S. invasion in 2003.

This is not to say that the Palestinian community has been the only one to suffer during times of war. But due to their lack of options, the state of Palestinian refugees is often the most perilous and desperate. They are stateless. Most Arab countries intentionally grant them precarious legal status under various guises to keep them contained and easily controlled.

The problem is compounded by wars that fuel mass exodus. Stateless refugees are always stranded, leaving them vulnerable to perpetual suffering and abuse.

Before 2003, a small community of 35,000 Palestinians resided in Iraq. They were hardly ever associated with political controversy. When the United States invaded, however, they became an easy target for various militias, U.S. forces and criminal gangs. Many were killed.

Others ran in circles seeking safe haven elsewhere in Iraq, to no avail, and thousands found themselves stranded in refugee camps at the Jordanian and Syrian borders. Their number now stands at nearly 7,000. Their tragedy highlights how the Palestinian refugee problem is as real and urgent as ever. The plight of Palestinians also shames the Arabs, who never cease to declare verbal wars on Israel, yet fail to host fleeing refugees. Even Palestinian factions, busy with their own infighting, offer only pitifully safe statements of support.

The situation in Syria promises to be even worse. Historically, there has been bad blood between Syria and some Palestinian factions, including Fatah, the party dominating the PLO, and the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA). While Damascus has hosted various Palestinian leftist factions over the years, Hamas didn't relocate to Damascus until its breakup with Jordan. In recent months, Hamas has quietly vacated its offices in Damascus.

It became impossible for the Islamic movement to function where it was firmly pressed to take sides. Its attempt to reach an acceptable middle ground — supporting the Syrian people but warning against foreign attempts to weaken Syria — fell on deaf ears. Some Arab governments insisted on pressurizing Hamas officials to reach a conclusive decision regarding a conflict not of their own making, thus forcing them eventually to part ways with Syria.

The political discourse regarding Syria has been the most polarizing of all narratives for the so-called Arab Spring. Palestinians have been caught in that.

Al Jazeera has done a disservice to Palestinian refugees by insisting on contextualizing Palestinians as part of the larger Syria discourse. The television network knows well what happens to stateless, vulnerable Palestinians when conflicts end. Reporters did a good job documenting the humiliation suffered by Palestinians in Iraq. Even if for purely humanitarian reasons, Arab media should try to neutralize the Palestinian presence in the Syrian conflict.

Palestinians are already being targeted. 300 Palestinian deaths have been reported in Syria since the conflict began. The PA says it is in contact with Syrian authorities to ensure the safety of the large refugee population. Many killings are reportedly taking place in Yarmouk.

Arab media opposed to the government of Syria's Bashar Assad are blaming Syrian security forces for targeting Palestinians. Other media tell a different story.

"In the worst incident, 16 members of the Palestine Liberation Army, which is backed by Syrian authorities, were killed after gunmen stopped their bus and kidnapped them," reported Khaled Abu Toumeh in 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."

A statement issued July 16 by the Free Syria Army joint command, and cited by AFP, called "pro-regime Palestinian leaders on Syrian soil ... 'legitimate targets.'" Considering that cooperation between various PLO factions and Syria goes back decades, the call resembles a death note to numerous Palestinians in Syria.

The Palestine Liberation Army has more or less served a symbolic role. It was barely involved in any military action, whether in or outside Syria. The heinous butchering of these men points to a decided attempt at punishing innocent Palestinians.

Palestinian refugees might well find themselves on the run again as the situation is so perilous. Palestinian factions must put their personal interests aside and unite, even if temporarily, to protect Palestinian refugees in Syria.

The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, whose primary purpose is "to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees", must act now to ensure the safety of Palestinian refugees in any future grim scenario. And the Arab League, which has done little to protect Palestinian refugees when caught in past regional conflicts, must act this time to redeem past failures.

There is nothing worse than being a refugee always on the run, with a legal status of perpetual statelessness and with no country in which to seek shelter.

As for the Arab media, they should know well that their insistence on representing Palestinians as a relevant party in the bloodshed in Syria is equal to setting them up for a major disaster, to say the least.

Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is an internationally syndicated columnist and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is "My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story" (Pluto Press, London.)


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