Surviving a storm: Palestinian refugees caught in Syrian crossfire

Palestinian refugees who fled the long struggle in their own region now wearily watch the Syrian civil war unfold. Despite efforts to stay out of the conflict, they still get caught in crossfire, with 17 Palestinians tortured and killed recently.

­The Palestinians first reported as killed on Wednesday “were unarmed, and were on their way to visit their families on holiday,” PLA chief-of-staff Major General Mohammad Tareq al-Khadraa says in a statement condemning their deaths.

The PLA is a battalion in the Syrian Army, although technically it remains a military wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Syria embraced thousands of refugees from Palestine, granting them a full package of civil rights which Palestinians never enjoyed in any other state.

But as the uprising against President Bashar Assad’s regime flared up in March 2011, Syria’s Palestinians found themselves in a tight spot. The opposition urged the refugees to demonstrate against Assad, while the regime clearly expected some support in return for the unprecedented rights granted them. However the Palestinians do not want to take sides in the conflict.

No matter what and who is at the helm, our safety is guaranteed by law. It’s the people here – and the system – that accept us, not just a leader or regime,” Abdelghani Halilo, a member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, told RT.

The PLA chief attributes the recent killings of the 17 men to “armed terrorist groups” – a term President Assad uses to refer to the rebel fighters – and links them to Western and Israeli agendas, reports Syria’s official news agency SANA. This view is shared by many of the half a million Palestinians living in Syria.

They wanted to both weaken the regime and spread despair among Palestinians in order to make them give up fighting for their rights to get occupied lands back,” Anwar Raja from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine told RT.

The incident, following the assassination of a Hamas leader in June, has raised fresh concerns amongst the Palestinian community in Syria that they are being targeted deliberately so as to upset their neutral position.

This all is a Syrian affair. We are focused on protecting our own camps. But this ‘opposition’ has wanted to drag us down since the beginning. Now we can see they use all possible tools,” Yaser Tamim of the Palestinian Cultural Center told RT. “It is stupid to think this will succeed. We are guests here. Nothing can happen to make us change our position.”

Palestinians know only too well where choosing sides in an internal conflict may lead to. In 1990, thousands of them were expelled from Kuwait for having supported Saddam Hussein during his invasion – and then again from Iraq when he was toppled.

Syria’s Palestinians do not wish to gamble their rights to hold property or get government jobs either. They are concerned that if Assad is ousted, no other foreign state will treat them as regular citizens or even host them as refugees. But concerns of tomorrow are now getting outpaced by today’s heat. With persistent attempts from both warring sides to drag them in, Palestinians fear getting caught in the crossfire.