Palestinian refugees increasingly drawn into Syrian war
- 7 December 2012
- From the section Middle East
Among the diverse sectarian and ethnic groups caught up in the uprising in Syria there are nearly 500,000 Palestinian refugees.
Most have tried to stay on the sidelines of the fighting but in recent months it has reached several refugee camps.
Some young Palestinian men - living in Syria and neighbouring countries - have joined the rebels. Some have joined government forces.
For those who try to flee the violence, their existing refugee status causes problems.
There are now more than 50 families staying at the Cyber City camp in northern Jordan. It is a crumbling building that was previously used to house foreign workers at the nearby technology park.
In a room just three metres in length and width, a young woman is hanging out the laundry to dry.
Earlier this year, she made the perilous journey from Yarmouk camp - Syria's largest Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus - with her husband, Maimoun, and three little children. They share the single room.
"We came to protect the kids," she tells me. "For sure life here is difficult. To be honest, you can hardly bear it, but I am glad we didn't stay in Damascus to see more terrible things."
In July, Yarmouk camp saw angry protests after soldiers from the Palestinian Liberation Army, a branch of the Syrian military, were killed.
More than a dozen corpses were found near Aleppo. The opposition said they were trying to defect, while the Syrian government blamed the deaths on armed terrorists.
In August, at least 20 people were killed in a shopping area during a mortar attack on the camp.
"There have been killings, violations and arrests. Air strikes. They did everything you can think of. They even raped some girls," says Maimoun.
He insists that his community tried to remain out of the conflict but as government forces and rebels clashed in neighbouring districts of the capital, it got dragged in.
"It wasn't our decision. We were forced to get involved against our will. My house was attacked and set on fire for no reason. That's why I'm sitting here," he says.
"If someone lost his brother, mother or whole family, what should he do? Sit and watch?"
Downstairs, a number of Palestinian refugees gather to tell me their stories. Their families fled their original homes in Israel when the state was created in 1948 or after the 1967 war when the West Bank was occupied. Some lived in Jordan, Iraq and Kuwait before moving to Syria.
They feel they had good lives there, particularly compared to their counterparts in other Arab countries.
Many lived outside refugee camps. Although the Syrian authorities considered them non-citizens, they had full access to employment and social services.
Militants' split loyalties
Jihad Khalil used to be a tailor in the southern city of Deraa. He decided to leave after he was shot in clashes and lost two brothers to the two sides in the conflict.
"I lost my brother in January to the Free Syrian Army. They apologised and told us they thought he was with the regime. My other brother was killed in September by the regime. They shot him on the street when he was out buying supplies," he says.
"My first brother was a driver, the second was an electrician. They weren't involved in politics or any Palestinian groups."
The loyalties of Palestinian militant leaders who were allowed to live in exile in Syria have exacerbated the problems of ordinary refugees.
The political bureau of Hamas, led by Khaled Meshaal, was based in the country until earlier this year. It left after ideological ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the main opposition forces, strained relations.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command, headed by Ahmed Jabril, remains and has sided with the Syrian army.
"Khaled Meshaal is against the regime and Ahmed Jabril is with it. We are stuck in the middle," says Mohammad, another Cyber City camp resident.
"If the Free Syrian Army captures a Palestinian they say, 'you are with Ahmed Jabril' and they kill you. If the Syrian government captures you, then you're accused of being with the revolution and they kill you".
"Meanwhile, Khaled Meshaal lives a nice life in Qatar and Ahmed Jabril is in his nice house," he adds bitterly.
Complaints of neglect
More Palestinian refugees from Syria arrive while I am at the camp.
They are exhausted after a dangerous four-day journey. A boy snores loudly in his father's arms.
Like others here, the man complains of bias at the border. He says his family was initially turned back, even though he has old ID documents from Jordan. He claims that they eventually crossed by pretending to be Syrian.
The refugees also feel they have been neglected by Palestinian leaders in Ramallah.
Although the Jordanian government and the Palestinian embassy in Amman maintain that they are doing all they can to help, the head of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, Mahdi Abdelhadi, says the situation is very difficult.
"The Palestinian department of refugees of the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organisation] is not doing any serious work concerning the Palestinian refugees seeking refuge in Jordan.
"The Jordanian government is treating them separately and independently from other Syrian refugees. Finally, the Gulfies [Gulf states] investing in the agenda of the Syrian opposition and supporting the Syrian refugees are not paying any attention to this chapter - Palestinian refugees in Syria and Lebanon," he says.
That could be the reason why only about 10,000 Palestinian refugees have left Syria so far, despite the worsening violence.
They are alarmed at the prospect of being displaced again and face a particularly uncertain future.