Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Syria and the Palestinians

Palestinians are deeply involved in the conflict raging within Syria, both on the personal level, as hapless victims, and on the geopolitical level, as major players.

At the start of Syria’s civil war three years ago, some 500,000 Palestinian “refugees” were resident in the country, most of them descendants of families displaced during the Israeli-Arab war of 1948.  The conflict within Syria has resulted in more than half of them being displaced, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

Syria borders four nation states: Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.  People fleeing the turmoil within Syria have poured over into each, although most realised that making for Iraq proper would be like jumping from the frying pan into the fire.  Not only was the country itself in a state of turmoil, but it had a history of  the systematic forced displacement of its own Palestinian population following the US’s invasion and occupation in 2003. Approximately 3,000 of those Palestinian refugees who fled from Iraq to Syria again found themselves compelled to flee, and those who made their way to the north-west sought shelter in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the regional government rapidly filled its major Moqebleh refugee camp, and constructed a second at Kawrgosk.

As for Turkey, its efforts on behalf of the million or more Syrian refugees flooding into the country have been commendable.  By all accounts, its camps are among the best in the world, and according to some estimates the country is spending up to $1 billion to accommodate the refugees. However refugees are not all being treated alike.  Under the rules that Turkey has imposed, Palestinians fleeing Syria are under a considerable disadvantage.  Before Syria imploded into civil war, the half-million Palestinians in Syria lived under fairly good conditions, but they were not entitled to citizenship and were not issued with identity cards or passports. 

      So whereas Syrians entering Turkey with passports are free to settle anywhere in the country, those without proper documents have to wait until space opens up in one of the camps.  As a result, across the border tens of thousands of displaced people, many Palestinians among them, live in a handful of impromptu camps that receive humanitarian aid irregularly, waiting for news of an opening.

Before the Syrian conflict Lebanon already hosted some half million Palestinian refugees descended from those who fled in 1948. The vast majority were denied citizenship or the right to work, and were dependent on international aid. Although Lebanon has allowed in more Palestinians fleeing from Syria than any other country, it restricts entry by way of a visa fee that other Syrian refugees are not required to pay.  Those who do enter are accorded the same deprived status as their unhappy compatriots.

Jordan hosts some 2 million Palestinian refugees drawn from those displaced in 1948 and 1967 and their descendants. But while nearly 400,000 Syrians have found refuge from their civil conflict in Jordan, since January the government is reported to have officially denied entry to the Palestinians amongst them, citing security concerns and the country's delicate demographic balance. The 9,200 Palestinian refugees from Syria who did cross the border into Jordan are being held in separate facilities, with local relatives prevented from obtaining their release.  It is reported that in dozens of cases Palestinians have been sent back to Syria, and there are hundreds of Palestinians on the Syrian side of the border who are prevented from entering Jordan.

Given this disturbing background, the two bodies representative of the Palestinian people – Hamas in the Gaza strip, and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank – have recently been vying with each other to gain an advantage from the turmoil in Syria.  As a result, both are reneging on their own followers.

Both administrations – in common with the vast majority of Sunni Muslims and their own Palestinian people – originally sided with the Sunni-orientated Syrian opposition. However Hamas's support for them led to the expulsion of its leaders from Syria, while the PA’s failure to side with the Assad regime resulted in tensions between Damascus and Ramallah.  Now, discounting the displacement and death of tens of thousands of Palestinians living in Syria, and the fact that Palestinian fighters are currently in active combat against the Assad regime, both Hamas and the PA are trying to mend fences with the Syrian president, hoping he will forgive them for failing to support him against the rebels.

Hamas's efforts not been markedly successful, mainly because the balance of advantage in any rapprochement would favour Hamas, and help it rid itself of its increasing isolation.  All the same, Hamas leaders and spokesmen have stopped their rhetorical attacks on the Assad regime, while Hamas has been working hard to distance itself from the Syrian "rebels," particularly those affiliated with Al-Qaeda. In a recent speech, Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh assured Syria and other Arab countries that his movement does not meddle in their internal affairs. He called for a "political solution and national understandings" in solving Arab disputes.

The shift in the PA's stance became evident during Mahmoud Abbas's recent speech at the United Nations General Assembly. "While we condemn the crime of the use of chemical weapons in Syria,” said Abbas, “we have affirmed our rejection of a military solution and the need to find a peaceful political solution to fulfil the aspirations of the Syrian people."

The fact that Abbas refrained from holding the Assad regime responsible for the use of chemical weapons was received with a sigh of relief in Damascus.

After Abbas's speech, Assad agreed to meet with senior PLO official Abbas Zaki, who relayed to him a letter from the PA president. The Syrian news agency Sana quoted the PLO envoy as telling Assad that the Palestinians support Syria in the face of "aggression" – in other words, that the PLO has decided to support Assad against the various opposition groups fighting against his régime.

There are authoritative reports that this accord was recently sealed by way of a secret agreement between PA President Mahmoud Abbas  and President Bashar Assad. Kept even from US Secretary of State John Kerry, this deal makes Abbas the first Arab leader to break ranks with the united Arab front against Assad. Although there are Palestinians currently fighting against the Damascus regime, Abbas pledged that Palestinian fighters would lay down their arms and withdraw from Syrian rebel ranks.

The shifting pattern of alliances puts Abbas and the PA firmly on the side of Iran, Hezbollah and the Shi’a jihadists, supporters of the Assad regime.  This does not bode well either for Middle East stability or for the Israel-Palestine peace talks.               
                   Oh, what a tangled web we weave
                  When first we practise to deceive.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 30 October 2013: 
Published in the Eurasia Review, 29 October 2013:

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