Palestinians pay heavy price in Syrian war

Sunday 11/09/2016
A June 2014 file picture shows a former resident of Damascus’ Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp, playing the piano in the middle of the street near destroyed buildings in the southern Damascus suburb.

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.