Palestinians pay heavy price in Syrian war
Damascus - No one in Syria has been spared the ongoing war, but the country’s 500,000 Palestinians have paid a particularly heavy price. Their camps have been targeted, destroyed and depopulated in more than five years of fighting.
The majority of Palestinians have been displaced inside Syria or forced to flee to Lebanon and Jordan while Palestinian armed factions have taken sides in the fighting, mainly joining regime forces.
Although the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) sought to keep a neutral stance at the beginning of the conflict, Palestinians in Syria are split over the war. Those supporting Hamas joined the opposition and those affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine- General Command (PFLP-GC) back the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Regime allies say supporting it “is an ethical and national duty” and that what is happening in Syria is largely due to its Arab national stances and its support of the Palestinian cause.
Palestinian camps sustained heavy bombardment and became battlegrounds, notably Yarmouk, near Damascus and home to 150,000 refugees; the camp of Deraa, which is under opposition control; Nayrab and Handarat camps in Aleppo, as well as the camps outside Damascus.
Yarmouk remains the hardest hit because of its location near the entrance of Damascus, which made it an attractive target for opposition groups, in addition to the Islamic State (ISIS) and the former al-Nusra Front, which has since cut its affiliation with al-Qaeda.
“(The destruction) of Yarmouk was done by an Israeli decision because this camp sums up the memory of the Palestinian people and it is regarded as the capital of the Palestinian diaspora,” said a pro-Assad Palestinian commander, on condition of anonymity.
“The problem is not the physical destruction of the camp as much as the displacement of the people. This is exactly what Israel wants, to dissolve the Palestinians in the Syrian society or force them to emigrate.”
Scores of fighters have been recruited from Yarmouk and other Palestinian camps. Armed units were set up by the PFLP-GC, Fatah al-Intifada, the Palestinian Struggle Front and al-Saiqa in coordination with the Syrian Army to protect the camp and repel attacks by opposition groups.
Other Palestinian groups, notably Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis, sided with Syrian opposition fighters in Yarmouk and smaller units joined the ranks of the Free Syrian Army on other fronts.
“We have joined the Free Syrian Army since the beginning of the armed revolution because the Syrian people are our brethren and we face what they face,” said Abu Obeida Maqdissi, a Palestinian fighter with Ahrar al-Sham Brigade outside Aleppo.
“Dozens of Palestinian youngsters are engaged within the Army of Islam in Gouta Sharqiyah (near Damascus) and in units fighting on the southern fronts. Some have joined al-Nusra Front after deserting the Palestinian factions that have stood with the regime against the people,” Maqdis said.
Palestinian Struggle Front Secretary-General Khaled Abdel Majid said his group sustained more than 3,700 dead and thousands of wounded in battles in Yarmouk.
“Militarily, we are allies of the Syrian army but the latter did not intervene in the camp leaving matter in the hands of the Palestinian factions,” he said. “Had the army entered Yarmouk right from the beginning, it would have regained full control of the camp as it did of its environs.”
Of all Palestinian factions backing the Syrian regime, the Palestinian Liberation Army (PLA), which is attached to the Syrian chief of staff, remains the most organised.
“PLA headquarters in rural Damascus have been targeted more than once because it is closely allied to the Syrian regime. Its positions were also attacked by the Islamic State in the (southern) province of Sweida, inflicting heavy casualties among its ranks,” Abdel Majid said.
The Palestinian official revealed that efforts to settle the situation in Yarmouk were under way and that al-Nusra Front was preparing to leave the camp for Idlib in agreement with the Syrian government.
“We hope that a similar deal will be reached to transport ISIS members to Raqqa, and as such the camp will be returned to its people without further destruction and fighting,” he said.
PFLP-GC official Anwar Raja argued that Palestinian camps have paid a dear price for standing with the Syrian regime.
“We are part of the war waged against Syria that had harboured the Palestinian resistance forces and offered Palestinians a dignified life and all their rights. That is why we have refused to stand against the Syrian state right from the beginning, whereas Hamas stood by the opposition through Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis brigade, which indulged in destroying Yarmouk camp,” Raja said.
He said the PFLP-GC suffered 400 dead and more than 800 wounded in Yarmouk, while in Handarat and Nayrab camps in Aleppo, the casualty toll among the regime-backed al- Quds Brigade is estimated at 1,500 dead and wounded.