Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Prior to the outbreak of the civil war, there were over 526,000 Palestinians living in Syria, refugees driven off their land with the establishment of Israel in 1948 and their descendants. Since 2011, over 120,000 Palestinian refugees have fled the country and 280,000 are internally displaced. According to UNRWA, 450,000 Palestinian refugees remained in the country in 2017.
Upon receiving the influx of refugees displaced by the creation of Israel in 1948, Syria at first toyed with resettling the Palestinians in a depopulated part of the Jazira. The refugees themselves refused any solution short of returning to Palestine. Syria did not grant them citizenship but initially placed them on a virtually equal footing with Syrians in employment, commercial activity and education. Consequently, they have successfully integrated into society and the economy. Like all large migrant communities, the Palestinians are vulnerable to popular hostility if a major downturn in the economy leads to unemployment. As with Syrians, membership of the Ba’ath (or the Palestinian military wing, al-Sa’iqa) is essential for advancement.
Damascus became home for the ‘rejectionist’ parts of the Palestinian movement, notably the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP).
From 1983, when Assad expelled the forces of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yassir Arafat’s from Lebanon, severe restrictions were applied on travel and public expression, and many Palestinians were arrested. In the words of Middle East Watch: ‘Of all the people from all groups tortured to death in Syria during this period (1983-1986) at least half have been Palestinians…As of summer 1990 Syria held 2,500 Palestinians as political prisoners, including about 2,000 within Syrian territory (the balance presumably in Lebanon).’
At times the regime used Palestinians to exercise pressure on different parties involved with the Arab-Israeli conflict and to gain concessions from them. The latest addition to the rejectionist Palestinian front in Syria has been the leadership of Hamas.
After allowing 300 Palestinian refugees from Iraq to enter in April-May 2006, the Syrian government singled out this group for denial of entry. By May 2007, around 1,400 Iraqi Palestinians were camped at the Iraqi-Syrian border – fleeing Shi’a militia attacks at home and refused permission to enter Syria. Despite assistance from UNHCR and the International Committee for the Red Cross, Palestinians were living in a squalid desert camp, prone to blazing desert heat and sand storms, and lacking adequate water supplies. In May 2007 UNHCR appealed for international assistance in providing health-care at the camps, noting that some Palestinian Iraqis were dying of treatable illnesses. The camp was finally closed in 2010 when the UN moved the last 60 residents to another camp inside Syria; more than 1,000 had been resettled to third countries.
Palestinians have suffered immensely during the civil war. According to the Action Group for Palestinians of Syria, approximately 3,414 Palestinians were killed in Syria between 2011 and 2016. The same group reported that 456 Palestinians had been killed by torture in regime prisons as of December 2016. According to UNRWA, over 120,000 Palestinian refugees had fled the country and 280,000 were internally displaced by 2017; an estimated 43,000 were trapped in inaccessible locations. Palestinians’ lack of nationality documents compounds the difficulties faced by displaced Syrians.
Palestinian factions are divided in their political allegiances. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Palestine Liberation Army back the Assad regime, and many Palestinian-Syrian militias have fought alongside the government. Hamas and Fatah both attempted to appear neutral, especially in the early stages. However, Hamas disengaged itself from the government after 2012 while Fatah reestablished relations with Assad in 2015.
Multiple Palestinian refugee camps in Syria have been attacked during the conflict. In August 2011, UNRWA reported that over 5,000 Palestinian refugees had fled a camp in Lattakia after the Syrian army attacked the area. Khan Eshieh camp, located south west of Damascus, experienced intensified armed conflict beginning in May 2016, leading to dozens of civilian deaths. Handarat camp, north of Aleppo, has changed hands repeatedly between the government and rebels and is reportedly abandoned and devastated. Sbeineh camp in Damascus and Deraa camp in the south are also largely destroyed.
The situation in Yarmouk, the largest Palestinian refugee community in Syria, has been described as one of the worst humanitarian situations in the war. Prior to 2011, an estimated 200,000 people lived in Yarmouk. In late 2012, as opposition rebels prepared to enter Yarmouk, the Assad government placed the camp under siege and bombarded it with barrel bombs. As a result, the majority of residents fled. The siege prevented food, water and medicine from reaching the camp, and snipers prevent residents from moving in or out. More than 1,270 Palestinians have died in Yarmouk, whether due to starvation, lack of medicine or violence. In April 2015, ISIS took control of the camp, leading to further violence, displacement and reports of executions. By early 2017, the camp’s population had been reduced to approximately 6,000 residents. And by May 2017, the Action Group for Palestinians in Syria reported that it had recorded the deaths of at least 3,502 Palestinian refugees since the beginning of the conflict.
Updated March 2018
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