What really happened between the 5th and the 6th of June among the Palestinians of the refugee camp of Yarmuk in Damascus? Everything started on May 15, the first initiative launched to commemorate the Nakba on May 18, when some Palestinians refugees living in Syria were shot dead by the IDF, while attempting to break in the Israeli borders from the occupied Golan Heights. Even though protests were coordinated by Palestinian activists from Lebanon to Syria to Palestine itself, the Syrian regime promoted the rally with the ultimate aim to deflect attention from the internal uprising. On the 5th of June, the Syrian authorities were even more keen on organizing the Naqsa commemoration along the same lines, transforming the recurrence into another Israeli bloodshed of Palestinians at the border. But this time events developed in an unexpected way for the Syrians.
On June 13, I had the chance to talk with residents of the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, particularly with Abu Bassem, actively involved in one of the main youth groups inside the camp. Abu Bassem is currently risking to be incarcerated once again by the security forces, because of the outspoken position he took after the events of June 5.
He recalls perfectly the events occurred the night between the 4th and the 5th, when the PFLP (headed by Taher Maher) stood aside while the PFLP-General Command (Qiyada al-‘Amma), the Syrian watchdog in the Palestinian camps, came to gather participants for the Naqsa initiative, helped by the Syrian security forces. Abu Bassem and his group patrolled the camp all night long to prevent anyone dragging people to die at the border, but it was all in vain, since the two PFLP factions helped the Syrians to find secondary routes to enter the camp.
On Monday (June 6), during the funerals celebrated in Yarmuk for the Palestinians fallen under the Israeli fire the day before, some members of the PFLP-GC came to condole with the families of the martyrs, but they were told to leave the procession immediately, being considered the main culprits for the deaths. The reaction of the PFLP-GC was that some of his militiamen started shooting in the air and chaos erupted in Yarmuk. The office of the PFLP-GC was set on fire and several residents were shot dead during the clashes.
Young Palestinians like Abu Bassem are increasingly taking distances from the Palestinian traditional factions, following a widespread trend in the whole Middle East, where the youth is challenging old political elites. According to the videos published on Electronic Intifada, people in Yarmuk were shouting: “the people want the downfall of the factions” (as-sha’b yuridu isqat al-tafasil), echoing the slogans of the Arab Spring (the people want the downfall of the regime/ as-sha’b yuridu isqat al-nizam). “We know the historical leadership of the PFLP and the current one in Palestine, but we don’t know anything about who are these figures leading the party in Yarmuk,” complains Abu Bassem, “they are only good at appearing on Al-Dunya and As-Suriya [Syrian National TV channels]. For this reason, the group Abu Bassem belongs to, remains independent, which in his words is exactly the feature Palestinian political cadres are scared of. For these reasons, Abu Bassem’s group is planning a Third Intifada against Israel, independent from political parties and religious affiliations: it will be the Intifada of the refugees, based exclusively on the right of return.
Palestinian participation to the Syrian uprising went almost unnoticed so far. In the case of Abu Bassem’s group, and probably of other secular groups, the rejection of any religious affiliation has determined the refusal to join demonstrations at the end of the Friday Prayer. Secondly, even though Abu Bassem’s organization is in touch with the Syrian opposition, they avoided to take sides until now. “In the end, as Palestinians, even if we consider the Syrian ‘resistance discourse’ extremely hypocritical and we are not happy with our status of refugees here,” pointed out Abu Bassem, “that’s all we have and we cannot jeopardize the benefits enjoyed in this hosting country.” Yarmuk is probably the best Palestinian camp in Syria, Abu Bassem is fully aware of this: houses are decent, worth market prices and there is continuous energy. A luxury compared to the Lebanese camps! In general, despite restrictions on land ownership, Palestinians in Syria are fully entitled to government services, education and employment, with good opportunities to find the means to move out of the camps: remarkable concessions, if compared with the state of Palestinians in other Middle Eastern states.
Nonetheless, what happened on June 5, could have shifted the balance in the position of Palestinians towards the regime. “They killed our people, they sell our blood at the border,” says Abu Bassem. This is nothing new to him, as he goes on saying: “the biggest harm to the Palestinian cause remain Arab regimes.” Actually, even if it appears less known to those defending a priori the Syrian anti-Zionist resistance, history is full of episodes when Syrian uncompromising commitment to the Palestinian cause looked contradictory, from the Lebanese Civil War to the almost achieved peace with Israel in 2000. Not without mentioning Rami Makhluf’s recent declarations about the essential contribution of the Ba’th regime to Israeli stability.
What is clear is that Syria cannot afford to lose the Palestinians now, it would be a fatal blow to its propaganda. “They are scared of seeing us taking sides against them and even willing to remove Ahmad Jibril [the leader of the PFLP-GC] from his post, if this can help securing Palestinian support,” this is the streets’ voice in Yarmuk, according to Abu Bassem.
A few days ago, I met again with Abu Bassem. He told me the Syrian mukhabarat are still watching over him, because of his active participation in the camp’s uprising again the PFLP-GC. Once again, Syrian support to Palestinians appears selective and based on national interests, rather than on a ‘just cause’.
On the legal status of Palestinians in Syria:
The events of Yarmuk reported by Electronic Intifada:
I felt I should have included this as well, it’s a brief talk I had with another resident of Yarmuk…
After a while we were sitting talking in the restaurant, a veteran of the camp, Ghassan, joined us for a drink. He has a seasoned communist look…large red shirt falling out of some blue jeans, long gray hair tied back and remarkable beard. “Well, nowadays, if they stop me is because they think I am a Salafist ’cause of the beard, but then they realize I have blue jeans and they put me in jail anyway…as a communist!” He goes on poking fun at the rumors spread by the government about supposed armed ‘vandals’ (mukharribin)infiltrated in the camp, pointing out how there are only 35 kalashnikov in Yarmuk (a normal quantity for a Palestinian camp with different factions inside), but the Syrian authorities are fabricating the need of security to legitimize further intervention in the camp. For example, they are suggesting that mukharribin are entering Yarmuk from the neighboring area of Hajar al-Sawda.
With regards to the main political stakeholder in the camp, Hamas, the fact that it did not take a clear position on the unrest has extremely upset Damascus, according to Ghassan, but, at the same time, the Ba’th regime doesn’t seem concerned even about losing bigger allies, as it is evident from the exacerbated relations with Turkey. The unique priority is to gain the upper hand in the repression.
This is also evident by the recent opening to the opposition, embodied in the ‘National Dialogue’ initiative, which has not implied a contemporary end to violent repression