A number of Palestinian refugees living in Damascus have joined the uprising in Syria, according to activists and rebels, with some taking up arms alongside rebel Free Syrian Army fighters.
The majority of at least 500,000 Palestinians in Syria have been living in the country since the 1948 creation of Israel, and the Syrian regime has systematically striven to control their political activity.
Most of the refugees joining the anti-regime revolt are not affiliated to traditional Palestinian factions or movements, according to activists.
“Many of us — especially the youth — are in sympathy with the revolution, and now that the fighting is in Damascus, we cannot stay put,” a Palestinian from Yarmuk refugee camp, on the outskirts of the capital, told AFP.
“Many Palestinian youth have joined the FSA, and they are fighting side by side with the Syrian revolutionaries in the Tadamon and Al-Hajar Al-Aswad districts,” said the activist, who identified himself as Abu al-Sakan.
Abu al-Sakan said sympathy for the uprising has grown among Palestinians, especially as more and more Syrians displaced from Homs, Daraa and Hama in the provinces seek refuge in or around the refugee camps in Damascus.
With fighting raging in nearby Tadamon, Al-Midan and Al-Hajar Al-Aswad districts, hundreds of civilians have sought shelter since last week in Yarmuk camp, activists say, stoking fears the army might launch an attack on the area.
Though the camp was calm on Tuesday, it was difficult for people to leave and gunfire could be heard from neighbouring areas. Demonstrations in the camp have become common, activists say. Last Friday, thousands of people — Palestinians and Syrians — took part in a protest that started off from mosques in the area, a witness said.
Colonel Kassem Saadeddine, spokesman for the FSA’s Homs-based joint command, told AFP on Tuesday that “Palestinians are fighting alongside us, and they are well trained.”
The regime has accused the West, Gulf states and Israel of conspiring against Syria, while boasting it hosts half a million Palestinian refugees and supports their people’s struggle for statehood.
“The regime says it supports the Palestinians and gives us equal rights,” said Abu al-Sakan.
“In fact this means we are treated in exactly the same brutal way as the Syrians. It is just as ready to kill us,” he said, adding that “just like the Syrians are divided over the revolt, so are the Palestinians.”
Activists say the most support for the uprising comes from young Palestinians disaffected with traditional party factions. The mainstream Fatah has historic qualms with the regime. Its activists were heavily persecuted by the Syrian regime during the 1980s, but they have tried to remain neutral in the domestic conflict.
An ex-Fatah member and former political detainee in Syria’s dreaded prisons, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, said Fatah loyalists in Damascus silently despise the regime but fear the consequences if Islamists take over.
“Palestinians have also paid the price of Arab countries’ struggles for decades. So most Fatah supporters are trying to stay on the fence,” explained the former detainee. ”But it is difficult because even if they do not go to the revolt, the revolt is coming to them.”
The Palestinian Islamic movement Hamas, the bulk of whose politburo was based in Damascus until February, may have distanced itself from the regime but without publicly supporting the revolt.
Another Damascus-based faction loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, argued on July 3 that the uprising was not a genuine local movement.
It was part of “a change in the foundations of this region in order to create a new Middle East.” Echoing the Assad regime, PFLP-GC spokesman Anwar Raja said the Palestinians were “convinced that the political regime in Syria is facing a war to divide the country and to dismantle its relations with the (Palestinian) resistance.”
Raja said most of the demonstrators were Syrians from outside the camp and “there was only a limited number of Palestinians. We think the (Israeli spy agency) Mossad benefits from all the destructive actions in Syria.”
In a statement issued on Monday night, the FSA’s joint command warned that pro-regime Palestinian leaders on Syrian soil were “legitimate targets.”
For his part, Abu al-Sakan slammed the PFLP-GC’s stance. “As Palestinians we have two revolutions: one against the Palestinian factions which do nothing for us, and another against the Syrian regime,” he said.