Nakba Day during the Arab Spring

Some Palestinian refugees worry that Syria’s regime is using their struggle to gain legitimacy during its crackdown.

Nakba Day
In both Lebanon and Syria, Palestinian refugees tried to cross the Israeli border on Nakba Day [EPA]

As Syrian protesters continue taking to the streets against the government of president Bashar al-Assad, the question of what role Syria’s half million Palestinian refugees will play remains unanswered.

“Look at how the [Syrian] regime attacks its own citizens, imagine what they would do to Palestinians if they protested,” explained a journalist in his early 30s from the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus when we met in Beirut this past week. Since protests began in March, more than 2,200 protesters have been killed by the regime according to the latest estimates from the UN.

The journalist, who asked to remain anonymous out of concern for his safety, also added that the government does have legitimate support from Palestinian refugees inside the country.

Palestinian refugees are the result of attacks by Zionist militias that sent hundreds of thousands of Palestinians into exile during Israel’s creation in 1948, and then again in 1967 when Israel’s military occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Many fled to neighbouring Arab countries where they continue to live with varying levels of rights.

The Syrian regime, which provides support to a number of Palestinian and Lebanese resistance groups, has used its long-static war with Israel to justify curtailing freedoms in the country. Despite it lifting nearly four-decade-old “emergency laws” in April, the crackdown against protesters has not stopped and the regime’s resistance credentials are now being called into question.

In May and then again in June, Palestinian refugees joined the wave of Arab uprisings when they marched to Israel’s boundaries demanding an end to occupation and their right to return. In Syria, Palestinian and Syrian refugees marched to the ceasefire line at the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in 1967.

The first march was held on May 15, Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”) Day, when Palestinians each year commemorate the loss of their homeland. In Lebanon, Palestinian activists also called for a similar march to the border with Israel. For refugees in both countries, merely seeing the lands of what was once Palestine was too much to handle. Thousands broke off from the planned demonstrations and marched through land covered with landmines to face Israeli soldiers. In Lebanon, 10 were killed, and in Syria four.

The Yarmouk journalist had originally supported the call to protest for Nakba Day, but as the Syrian regime brutally suppressed growing protests against it that began in March, he and others decided not to take part.

“[Many of us in Yarmouk] believed the regime was trying to use the movement to go to the Golan,” the journalist said.

“We refused to go and we told other people that they also shouldn’t. We asked them: ‘why would [the regime] let you reach [the ceasefire line to protest] at this time?'” Security forces had always prevented people from reaching the ceasefire line with Israel.

Displaced Syrian refugees from the Golan Heights living in other parts of the country often go to the area and communicate with family members on the other side by using a bullhorn to carry their voice across the valley.

The journalist said that the “propaganda” rally planned by the Syrian regime and its supporters on May 15 happened on top of the hill, but what happened in the valley below was outside of their control. “Tens of youth first went down to the fence, and then hundreds followed,” the journalist said.

Dramatic video of the event uploaded to YouTube showed hundreds of protesters break through the fence to meet Palestinian and Syrian protesters on the other side in Israeli-occupied territory. At least four people were killed by Israeli fire.

Walking from Syria to Jaffa

One protester in Syria, 28-year-old Hassan Hijzai, crossed the fence and made it all the way to Tel Aviv before being picked up by Israeli police when he told Israeli Channel 10:

“I saw some peace activists, one Jew and a few French Arabs, and I told them – I want to go with you – because my dream is to reach Jaffa, the city where I am from. I don’t want to go back to Syria, I want to stay here in my village, where my father and grandfather were born,” Hijazi said.

In south Lebanon the Nakba Day protest happened similarly. Palestinians there also ignored a planned rally on top of a hill overlooking the border and rushed to the border fence where they chanted for the right to return before being fired at by Israeli soldiers. At least ten were killed. A protester in Lebanon told Al Jazeera that day, “there is no acting logically when someone sees his land for the first time”.

“What happened on May 15 is proof that Palestinians are looking to get their right to return to Palestine and they are willing to pay for it with blood,” the journalist explained.

For those killed in Syria on May 15, a massive funeral was held back in Yarmouk on the following day. The journalist said most of the camp’s 200,000 residents were in attendance, all chanting against Israel and for their right to return. It was the largest demonstration he had ever seen in Yarmouk since the funeral of assassinated Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Abu Jihad in 1988.

After the May 15 funeral, the journalist told Al Jazeera: “The honour of the martyrs made some young people want to be martyrs themselves. And after that day Syrian TV only talked about what happened on the border.”

“We became more worried of the regime using the Palestinian people in its battle with its own people. So, we started to talk [openly] and we made a tent sit-in at al-Wassim Square [in Yarmouk] without a permit,” the journalist said.

The journalist said hundreds of passersby would come each day and ask questions like “Why did the Syrian regime open the border [for protests] only now?” and “Why is Syrian TV talking all the time about what’s happening on the border but not about what’s happening in Syrian cities?”

“It was like a parliament where for the first time the Palestinians in Yarmouk talked freely. The mukhabarat [intelligence service] and some factions started to notice and realised they couldn’t control what was happening in the street.”

They were eventually pressured to shut it down at the end of May, the journalist explained. During the brief sit-in, activists in the square were visited by groups and individuals connected to the regime who offered to help organise another protest at the border.

“We respected their decision and didn’t go on the march. None of the factions were at the protests at the border, including PFLP-GC.”

However, the journalist and others in Yarmouk said that political figures like Anwar Rajah, a high-ranking PFLP-GC official in Syria, appeared on Syrian State TV saying, “whoever wants to go to paradise, this is the way to do it”.

According to the journalist, “[Rajah] was playing off popular chant of the [anti-Syrian regime] uprising, ‘to paradise we’re going, martyrs in the millions.’ He wanted to say, ‘no, the path to paradise is not in streets of Syria, it’s here at the border'”.

“After the May 15 we started to get invitations to do it again. But a lot of people, because of the coverage of Syrian TV, refused,” the journalist said, adding that Syrian anti-regime activists had asked them not to demonstrate warning they’d be used by the regime. “But some factions supported the invitation to do it again.”

One of those factions was the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC, not to be confused with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine [PFLP] from which it splintered in the 1960s. PFLP-GC is a small faction led by Ahmed Jibril, who has always been a close ally of the Baathist regime in Syria.).

“As [Palestinian political] factions we prepared for the march on the fifth of June but then the Lebanese and Syrian governments didn’t grant us permission to protest [at the two counties’ respective borders with Israel],” Ramez “Abu Imad” Mustafa, head of PFLP-GC in Lebanon, told Al Jazeera from the group’s office in the Mar Elias refugee camp in Beirut.

The journalist said that Palestinian activists from Yarmouk and elsewhere watching the slaughter on TV went down to the border with the hope of stopping the killing, but it was too late.

Anger at both Israel and Syria

State media and rights organisations reported that at least 20 protesters were killed and dozens more injured by Israeli soldier fire and land mines. In Yarmouk camp the loved ones of those killed were furious, but this time not only at Israel.

“Some people tried to spread the idea that the factions abandoned the people in the Golan [on June 5] and they started to turn people against the factions, particularly PFLP-GC,” said Abu Imad. “Someone was inciting the people, this kind of thing had never happened before.”

“Those people trying to push these ideas on the Palestinian street are probably the so-called ‘Syrian opposition’ who think that such a march would affect their uprising negatively, therefore they were working on pushing people against PFLP-GC and the factions.”

The journalist from Yarmouk explained the events differently.

“I noticed that this funeral was nothing like the one after May 15 when there was a feeling of pride among the people. On June 6, there was no honour for the protesters who died on the border because people believed that they were killed only to support the regime.”

Palestinians at the demonstration chanted against the regime, “Oh Bashar you coward, send your soldiers to the Golan” and “Syrians and Palestinians are one.”

When the funeral procession arrived at the graveyard on the outskirts of Yarmouk, families of those killed shouted against political figures from the PFLP-GC and other factions whose representatives had gone on TV during the protests calling on others to join.

According to the journalist’s account, a scuffle broke out and the­ bodyguard of a PFLP official fired in the air. Crowds at the funeral then began chanting against the factions including the PFLP-GC. When a representative of PFLP-GC shouted back at people for chanting against Ahmed Jibril he was physically attacked.

The journalist said he and a few others intervened to protect the man, who escaped the crowd heading to the PFLP-GC headquarters nearby. The crowds then marched in that direction.

Shots rang out from buildings around the offices, and protesters tried to take cover while continuing their advance. The journalist witnessed protesters getting shot, and he said that he saw at least three people who were killed by bullets to the head.

After a number of hours, protesters got close enough to the offices where they began attacking cars parked outside. The shooting stopped, and PFLP-GC officials believed to be inside fled before the demonstrators set the building on fire.

Eventually, the crowds were chased away by men who the journalist suspects are PFLP-GC’s elite forces. Fourteen people were reportedly killed in the clashes, including three PFLP-GC members.

Abu Imad claims the protesters on June 6 were not Palestinians, but rather members of the Syrian opposition.

“The evidence that the opposition was involved is that during the march towards the funeral for the martyrs on the fifth of June, many Syrians were chanting against Bashar al-Assad and the leadership of Syria,” Abu Imad told Al Jazeera.

“Palestinians were not involved in that at all. There are many attempts to involve the Palestinian element [in the opposition protests] but the wisdom of the factions and the institutions have prevented that from happening.”

The journalist and other Palestinians residents of Yarmouk confirmed to Al Jazeera that they were present at the demonstrations against the PFLP-GC.

Palestinian refugees killed in Latakia

While listening to the journalists recall the events of June 6, he received a text message from a family member in Yarmouk informing him that two Palestinians had been killed in a refugee camp in the Syrian port city of Latakia.

According to Chris Gunness, a spokesperson from UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, Latakia and the refugee camp were under attack from Syrian gunboats at sea and tanks on land, causing more than half of the camp’s 10,000 residents to flee.

On August 18, Gunness issued a statement saying: “UNRWA can confirm three Palestine refugee deaths in the camp, although there are reports of at least one more, as well as many injuries and damage to property.”

The deaths in Latakia could have been a spark that brought Palestinian refugees into the ongoing unrest in the country. However, there were only small protests of a few hundred in Yarmouk that were reportedly shut down by security forces. Since protests began, Al Jazeera and other foreign media have been mostly barred from reporting from within Syria.

For Abu Imad, protests by Palestinian refugees against the government are unlikely to happen anytime soon.

“Historically, Palestinian factions have always considered Syria – whether its people or its leadership – as supporters of Palestinian resistance and the Palestinian cause,” said Abu Imad. “And because Syria supports Palestine, Palestine supports Syria.”

When asked why the regime hasn’t allowed protests at the border before May, Abu Imad replied, “The regime has to respond to this question. But me as a Palestinian, I had an opportunity and I should benefit from it. [On May 15 and June 6] Palestinians took the opportunity to benefit from this and express the Palestinians will and determination for the right of return”.

However, the journalist argued that while Palestinians may have more rights than they do in neighbouring countries, they are still living alongside Syrians “under the same system of corruption”.

“This regime already used guns against the Palestinian people. In Tel al-Zatar and Shatila during the camp wars and elsewhere in Lebanon, we didn’t forget what they did to us,” the journalist said, referring to Palestinian camps in Lebanon that came under attack either by Syrian forces or its allies during the civil war in Lebanon from 1975-1990.

“The Syrian regime is using the issue of Palestine to kill his own people. [If it cared about Palestine] it should’ve opened the border [to return to Palestine] decades ago,” he said. “We will not give [Bashar] the chance to use us again, and we will not help him kill his own people.”

Follow Matthew Cassel on Twitter: @justimage 

Source: Al Jazeera