The Palestinian dilemma over Syria

Sharif Nashashibi writes: Palestinian leaders, organisations and officials were generally silent at the start of Syria’s revolution, mainly out of concern for the fate of the half million Palestinian refugees in the country.

However, that has now changed, and not in President Bashar al-Assad’s favour. Attacks on Palestinian camps by Syrian forces loyal to him – most recently last week against the Yarmouk camp – have resulted in killings, injuries, and the displacement of thousands. This has angered Palestinian refugees, many of whom are now openly supporting the revolution, as well as taking in Syrian refugees.

This is particularly damaging for the Assad regime because it has long regarded itself as a guardian of the Palestinian cause.

In an obvious reference to Palestinians, Jihad Makdissi, the Syrian foreign ministry spokesman, wrote on Facebook that “guests” in Syria “have to respect the rules of hospitality” or “depart to the oases of democracy in Arab countries”. He later removed his comments following an outcry.

The regime’s supporters often cite the fact that Palestinian refugees in Syria are treated far better than in other Arab countries. What they overlook, though, is that the law enshrining the rights of these refugees was enacted well before the Ba’ath party took power.

While several Palestinian leaders have now broken their silence about Syria, attitudes vary. Yasser Abed Rabbo, the PLO’s secretary-general, described an attack by Assad’s forces on a Palestinian camp in Latakia as “a crime against humanity.” On the other hand, Nour Abdulhadi, the PLO’s director in Syria for political affairs, later said Palestinian refugees “will remain as supporters of the Syrian government” – a claim seemingly out of step with the facts.

One major blow to Assad has been Hamas’s stance. Not only did it refuse a request to hold pro-regime rallies in refugee camps in Syria, but it also allowed residents of Gaza to stage protests against him.

Its senior leaders left Damascus earlier this year, with political leader Khaled Meshaal – who reportedly twice turned down requests to meet Assad – now living in Qatar.

Several statements from Hamas’s top echelons have unequivocally supported Syria’s revolution. In the Washington Post, Karin Brulliard described this as a stark break between the former allies – one which, according to Fares Akram in the New York Times, strips the regime “of what little credibility it may have retained with the Arab street.”

“The policy shift [of Hamas] deprives Assad of one of his few remaining Sunni Muslim supporters in the Arab world and deepens his international isolation,” a Reuters report noted.

Hamas is the only member of the “axis of resistance” (grouping the Palestinian movement, Hezbollah, and the Iranian and Syrian regimes) to denounce Assad’s crackdown. Although Hamas’s decision is in line with polls indicating that Palestinians support the Arab spring, it has come at a significant price. A subsequent drop in Iranian aid to Hamas – which has been a lifeline for the movement in recent years – has yet to be filled by other sources. [Continue reading…]

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