This paper examines the impact of the on-going revolution in Syria on the local Palestinian refugee population. It presents the positioning of a growing segment of the Palestinian youth on the side of the revolution and contrasts it with that of the Palestinian factions on the side of the regime. It investigates the ways in which Palestinians came to be perceived by both the Syrian opposition and the regime. Eventually the paper sheds some light on possible future developments and proposes risk scenarios.
The examined developments are on-going and dynamic, which has posed a great challenge in obtaining a clear understanding of the situation and the direction it is heading in. Further challenge has been posed by limited access to sources of information due to the situation in Syria, as well as difficulty in verifying the information obtained. The majority of the accounts were gathered through interviews with Palestinians from Syria and Syrians conducted on two separate visits to Syria (August 2011, November 2011) and two separate visits to Lebanon (August 2011 and February-March 2012), and supplemented later through constant contact with both Palestinian and Syrian activists. The names of most of the interviewees were withheld on their request for protection reasons. Available (scarce) media reports on the topic were accessed, and academic literature was looked at in relation to the historical background of Syria-Palestinian relations.
The Palestinian refugee population, constituting just over two per cent of the whole population of Syria, has enjoyed close-to-equal rights with Syrian nationals. Syria has been believed to exercise the best approach among Arab countries towards its Palestinian refugee population by neither naturalizing it (Jordan), nor depriving it of basic social and civil rights (Lebanon). From the very beginning Syria offered them material and moral support. In terms of legal status, ownership of property, travel, and pension rights of Palestinian refugees, practically the same procedures as for nationals usually applied. “Various laws (...) effectively placed the refugees on equal footing with Syrian nationals with respect to civil service employment and the practice of certain professions such as notaries, doctors, and lawyers” . This equal footing does not extend, however, to political rights as Palestinians have been effectively excluded from the Syrian political sphere. For over 60 years, services to the refugee population has been provided by both the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and the Syrian government through its General Administration for Palestine Arab Refugees (GAPAR), established in 1950 as part of the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs.
Most of the 85,000-100,000 Palestine refugees who fled to Syria in 1948 came from the north of Palestine. In 1967, when Israel occupied the Golan Heights, a further displacement of Palestinian refugees took place in other parts of Syria. In the 1980s a few thousand refugees fleeing Lebanon, during the country's civil war, also took refuge in Syria. Currently, there are about 500,000 Palestinians in Syria (495,970 in 2010, according to UNRWA's latest statistics) living in ten official camps (Daraa; Hama; Homs; Damascus: Jaramana, Qabr Essit, Sbeineh, Khan Dunoun and Khan Eshieh; Aleppo: Neirab; Hasakeh) and four unofficial camps (Damascus: Yarmouk and Huseyniye; Aleppo: Ein el-Tal/Handarat; Latakia). The Al-Hol camp, situated outside Hasakeh in north-eastern Syria, was the only place that Palestinians from Iraq were allowed access in Syria after being refused regular entry at the border.
The relatively fair treatment of Palestinian refugees inside Syria did not hinder the country's previous long-term president Hafez al-Asad from systematically using the Palestinian resistance as a political tool and ensuring that no independent Palestinian power centre emerged in the region, as it could have challenged his hegemonic position. The Syrian leader, in his attempts to control the Palestinian political leadership, instigated divisions and created its own Palestinian proxies, as well as backed assaults on Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon during the country's civil war (Tel al-Zatar massacre 1976, PLO Tripoli defeat 1983, War of the Camps 1985-89). His ambition of being the regional preeminent figure was not to be reconciled with the PLO's strive for independence of Palestinian decision-making from external influence (al-qarar al-philastini al-mustaqil) . In recent years, Palestinian parties and factions' presence in Syria has been based on the condition of their loyalty and de facto dependence from the Syrian regime.
During the one-year old Syrian revolution the Palestinian camps were never directly attacked, however they suffered as part of broader invasions on the cities in which they are situated. When the Syrian regime was shelling the Ramel district of Latakia, in August 2011, the local camp Al-Ramel Al-Philistini was hit. Dozens of Palestinians were killed, while thousands became displaced. Similarly, inhabitants of the A'ideen camp in Homs suffered in February 2012, when the city was under severe invasion. Several camp inhabitants were killed (seven men from two families are reported to be killed in a massacre), while many were displaced . The reported overall number of Palestinians killed in the Syrian revolution was 61 at the end of March .
In the last weeks and days, further dangerous developments occurred. The reportedly 4,500-soldiers strong Palestinian Liberation Army - first established as the armed wing of the PLO, but later integrated under Syrian military command and in which Palestinian recruits serve – is being hit by a wave of assassinations of its top personnel . The official PLA's statement blames “armed groups”, using the same rhetoric as the Syrian regime does toward its opponents, while the rebel armed groups, so called Free Syrian Army, distanced themselves in a statement from these assassinations .