Syria's Civil War

Is the PLO helping or harming Palestinians in Syria?

Critics accuse the PLO of failing to protect or financially support Palestinian refugees in war-torn Syria.

In January, the PLO announced new funding to help rebuild the battered Khan Eshieh camp, but many felt it was too little, too late [Al Jazeera]

A Palestine Liberation Organisation delegation arrived in suits and keffiyehs last month to the Khan Eshieh Palestinian refugee camp to mark its return to the Syrian government's control.

There was an air of celebration, as Fatah's Syrian representative, Samir al-Rifai, was carried on the shoulders of his colleagues. During the visit, the PLO announced that it would supply Khan Eshieh with a grant of 25m Syrian pounds ($117,000) to bolster camp services and infrastructure, while the organisation's Syrian ambassador, Anwar Abdul Hadi, thanked Syrian authorities for the "return of security".

"We are committed to the stance of neutrality in Syria and non-interference in the internal affairs of any country," Abdul Hadi said. "We are guests in this country and must respect its hospitality."

The visit angered Palestinian-Syrian activists, who circulated a message dubbing the delegation "Pimps of the Liberation Organisation". One displaced activist accused Palestinian officials of turning up "on the backs of Syrian [army] tanks" rather than aiding camp residents when they needed it most.

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Pro and anti-government forces had long clashed in the towns and villages southwest of Damascus, including Khan Eshieh. But since June, the countryside around the camp had faced a renewed military campaign as the Syrian army, affiliated militias and Russian jets tried to uproot opposition fighters.

By night, Russian jets launched air strikes on key infrastructure, including housing and hospitals. At least 34 Palestinian civilians died during the past three months of the offensive to retake Khan Eshieh, while a tightening siege on the surrounding countryside led to shortages of food, basic goods and medical supplies.

Khan Eshieh community leaders and activists repeatedly called on the PLO to intervene to assist civilians, saying that there were no armed groups inside the camp and that the bombardments were targeting civilians. However, PLO executive committee member Ahmad al-Majdalani cast doubt on these claims, asking during an appearance on the Palestinian Al-Quds TV: "If there are no insurgents, then why is the camp besieged?"

In late November, rebels signed a truce deal for Khan Eshieh that saw more than 2,500 fighters, their families and other Palestinian civilians evacuated to northern Syria. 

The PLO's recent visit has raised broader questions about the organisation's role in Syria and its ability - or willingness - to advocate for hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees caught up in the conflict since 2011.

Majdalani told Al Jazeera that the PLO "took a solid position from the beginning that it was not interested in interfering in the internal affairs of Arab countries, including Syria". This, he said, was partly because of hard-earned lessons from the Lebanese civil war and the First Gulf war, when the PLO supported former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in the hopes of benefiting Palestinians; the move ultimately left hundreds of thousands vulnerable to reprisals in Kuwait.

"Anything that threatens the security of Syria will impact the Palestinian cause," Majdalani said. "The unity of Syria will be crucial for [hundreds of thousands] of Palestinians in Syria."

Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Centre, in Beirut and the author of an authoritative history of the PLO entitled Armed Struggle and the Search for State, acknowledged that the organisation has "faced an impossible choice, where even neutrality could be seen as a hostile act".

"[The PLO is concerned that] if they take a position that is too neutral - let alone hostile - to the regime, then the regime could take it out on Palestinians," Sayigh said. Mindful of the way in which Damascus turned its back on former ally Hamas for supporting the anti-Assad rebellion, the PLO has effectively ended up endorsing the regime, he told Al Jazeera.

Khan Eshieh is not the first time that the PLO has faced criticism for its role in Syria. Many Palestinians have repeatedly called for the organisation to better protect Palestinians in Syria, particularly in recent years, as several Palestinian camps in the country have been besieged and totally or partially destroyed. According to UNRWA, the United Nations Palestinian refugee agency, 95 percent of the estimated 450,000 Palestinian Syrians still in Syria are almost completely reliant on UN aid.

READ MORE: Palestinian refugees killed in Syria's Khan Eshieh camp

In late 2013, a five-person civil delegation of relief workers and community activists travelled from Yarmouk camp to meet PLO representatives visiting the Syrian capital. The delegation aimed to negotiate a way out of a deadly impasse that began when Syria's largest Palestinian community was bombarded on December 16, 2012, before rebels took control the next day.

After months under a crippling government-imposed siege, dozens of Yarmouk residents were starving to death only a few minutes' drive from the heart of the capital. Nearly 200 people have since died of starvation or lack of access to medical supplies, according to the UK-based Action Group for Palestinians in Syria.

Qaes Said, a member of the delegation who spoke to Al Jazeera under a pseudonym, said that while PLO officials reiterated the organisation's policy of non-interference, they also parroted the Syrian government's narrative on what had happened in Yarmouk.

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"They were coming and telling the camp … that [Palestinian] detainees were under Syrian law and would be released if they hadn't done anything," Said said. "They said the Syrian government was trying to bring in humanitarian aid, but those 'terrorists' - and they used that word - were holding the camp hostage."

A senior PLO figure who first led negotiations was later replaced by Majdalani, himself a Palestinian from Syria who heads a relatively minor faction within the PLO. Often seen by his critics as staunchly pro-government, Majdalani remains one of the PLO's main interlocutors with Damascus today.

"They didn't send someone from Fatah or another important faction; that was a sign that [the PLO] weren't taking this seriously," Said said, adding that the PLO is still falling short today. "They're not providing any protection and not providing any real financial support, and they are not even pressuring the international community to provide protection or access to other countries."

Negotiations to end Yarmouk's siege stalled, and a proposal meant to remove non-Palestinian armed groups from the camp collapsed in early 2014. The siege remains in place to this day, a situation for which Majdalani has blamed Hamas and "internal quarrels between militant groups".

While the debate will continue on whether the PLO could do more to help, camps such as Yarmouk and Khan Eshieh already stand as tattered symbols of the price paid by the pre-2011 Palestinian Syrian population of 560,000 - many now either internally displaced into poverty and uncertainty, or forced abroad as refugees once again.

Source: Al Jazeera