Posts Tagged With: Damascus

Palestinians fleeing Syria for Lebanon: the eternal refugee.

IRIN piece I contributed to, after visiting the Sabra camp in Beirut, already overcrowded with Palestinians coming from Syria. My part is the one on Lebanon.

Analysis: Palestinian refugees from Syria feel abandoned

Palestinians fleeing yarmuk

5,000 Palestinians flee to Jordan and Lebanon
Destabilization fears
Palestinians cite discrimination
UNRWA lacks resources

RAMTHA/BEIRUT/DUBAI, 29 August 2012 (IRIN) – In Jordan and Lebanon, the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) has registered nearly 5,000 Palestinian refugees from the 17-month conflict in Syria. As both countries are already home to large Palestinian refugee populations, the newly arrived have become a political issue – with Palestinians feeling they are treated unfairly.

“It has been quite bad living like a prisoner, especially when you see other people come and go but you are trapped,” said Samir, a Palestinian at a dormitory-style facility known as Cyber City, 90km north of the Jordanian capital Amman.

When Samir arrived in Jordan five months ago, Syrian refugees without a visa could move and work freely within Jordan with the signature of a Jordanian guarantor, while Palestinians, many of whom have family in Jordan, were prohibited from leaving the camp to visit or stay with relatives. This month, the Jordanian government discontinued the sponsorship system for Syrian refugees.

Samir’s wife Hanah could have left the camp because she is Syrian. “Can you imagine such discrimination?” she asked IRIN. “I will not leave them.”

Palestinians said they were not allowed to move more than 30m from the building. The camp is 12km from downtown Ramtha and is not served by public transport.

UNRWA told IRIN only 185 Palestinians without a valid visa – i.e. those who were smuggled over the border, or who had to leave their papers behind – have been sent to Cyber City, while another 770 live outside the camp. Refugees IRIN interviewed at the camp said Palestinians not holding Syrian or Jordanian nationality had been sent to the camp.

Palestinians at Cyber City told IRIN that family members trying to flee had been turned back at the Jordanian border, a phenomenon also noted by Human Rights Watch.

Reacting to the allegations, Samih* Maaytah, minister of state for media affairs and communications, told IRIN: “Each country has the right to protect its sovereignty. At some point, we did not allow some Syrians to enter Jordan via air, for example, because we have the right to check who is coming in. Jordan should not be questioned over its sovereignty rights. Turkey, for example, had recently said it needs to regulate how many Syrians are entering its borders. No one has given a reason for it or questioned it.”

Most of those at the camp are Palestinian Jordanians who had their citizenship withdrawn years ago in a Jordanian attempt to discourage Israeli transfers of Palestinians from the West Bank to Jordan.

“I was born in Jordan, but moved with my family to Syria. In 1995, they withdrew my citizenship from me and my brother. Although it is my country, I cannot move freely inside along with other people,” said Samir, who showed his Jordanian birth certificate to IRIN.

Maaytah told IRIN: “Whether it is Palestinians or not, those who came without Jordanian or Syrian nationalities will be given basic rights but any additional benefits are not Jordan’s responsibility. These people came to Jordan seeking security and Jordan gave it to them.”

But Jordan’s fears might go deeper. While Palestinians are estimated to make up more than half of Jordan’s population, the Hashemite dynasty relies on its non-Palestinian tribal support base for power. Since “Black September” in 1970 when Jordanian and Palestine Liberation Organization forces battled for control over the kingdom, the issue of how many Palestinians reside in the country has become taboo. During the second Gulf war, when scores of Palestinian expat workers fled to Jordan, the country found itself in a similar position as today.

“Jordan has experienced 500,000 Palestinians coming from Kuwait in 1992. It changed the way our society functions. In a country of just three million people, 500,000 refugees [are a lot],” a government employee, who preferred anonymity, told IRIN in March. “As Jordanians we are worried for the interests of our country.”

Lebanon

Similar dynamics are at play in Lebanon, which hosted 455,000 Palestinians before the Syrian crisis.

“The Lebanese have made it clear they don’t want to see more than a certain number of people coming here,” a high-ranking aid official told IRIN on condition of anonymity.

Some 4,000 Palestinians have registered with UNRWA in Lebanon, many of them in the last month. Many more may not have registered because of their “vulnerable” status there, said Roger Davies, acting director of UNRWA affairs in Lebanon.

According to Palestinian-Syrian journalist Nidal Bitari, the problem in receiving Palestinians is rooted in the Lebanese civil war and the long-standing tensions between the Lebanese government and Palestinian factions.

Most of the Palestinians fleeing from Syria to Lebanon have gone to one of the 12 Palestinian refugee camps, but the camps in Beirut are overcrowded slums. With limited opportunities for Palestinians to find jobs and leave, many of these settlements have become breeding grounds for extremism. Fear that the new refugees might be recruited by armed Palestinian fractions such as Fatah al-Islam is influencing government decisions, thinks Bitari.

Forced to pay

Officially both Jordan and Lebanon are keeping their borders open for all refugees from Syria. But unlike Syrians, who can freely enter Lebanon for up to six months, Palestinians receive only a one-week residency permit. Once that expires, they must pay 50,000 LBP (US$33) each month to renew it.

“There is a clear distinction between Palestinians from Syria and Syrians from Syria,” said Davies.

For some of the Palestinians, the fee is hard to afford: “My son arrived on 18 July and is still here [without a permit]. Where do we get the money from?” said Umm al-Khayr, a sick woman in her sixties from Damascus. “Why don’t they just give us six months like the Syrians?”

Corruption is also a problem: “I saw a Palestinian woman at the border, who did not know anyone in Lebanon and she was forced to pay $300 in bribes, $40 for each child,” said Darim, a teenager from Damascus. Palestinians who want to leave Syria still need permission from the Syrian government. While UNRWA said the procedure has been eased, NGO worker Rawan Nassar told IRIN that people have been asked to deposit large sums of money to obtain permission from the Syrian authorities, or have even been forced into providing sexual favours by border officials.

According to Palestinian sources close to Fatah, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas is expected to visit Lebanon shortly to negotiate better conditions with the government.

Costly, cramped camps

In Lebanon, already poor conditions in the camps are affecting the Palestinians. But even in these camps, rents remain high. Refugees complain that even when they pay $200, the rooms they get are in an awful condition. “In Sabra there is another family of 12 and they are all sleeping in one room without any mattress,” said Abu Ahmad, an old man bearing the hallmarks of the Syrian intelligence’s brutality: broken teeth and bullet wounds on his arms.

Jordan’s Cyber City, visited by IRIN, houses about 400 refugees, both Palestinians and Syrians.

Families are given separate rooms; singles have to share. “The room is too small for a family. I feel awkward walking to the bathroom with so many strange men around. We are nearly 40 people on this floor,” said Hanah.

Refugees who have to share kitchens and bathrooms with 30-40 people complained about unsanitary conditions in the camp.

“It is quite smelly here. Some of the mattresses had bugs. People caught skin infections and head lice,” said Hanah.

Betrayed?

Many Palestinians feel betrayed, and blame the government and aid agencies. While Syrian refugees receive assistance from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Palestinians fall under the mandate of UNRWA, with its smaller relief budget.

“UN agencies turned their backs on us,” said a refugee in Jordan who did not give his name. Refugees in Lebanon had similar stories to tell: “There is a woman in her seventh month of pregnancy who arrived two weeks ago with four kids and so far she hasn’t received anything from UNRWA,” said Umm Ahmad, Darim’s mother.

UNRWA Jordan told IRIN that while funds are limited “we acknowledge all Palestine refugees registered with the agency. Those who live in the agency’s five areas of operations are eligible for its services.”

UNRWA is providing primary health care free of charge, but has only limited additional funds for the new refugees. The extra strain that refugee children might put on UNRWA’s schooling system is of special concern. UNRWA has appealed to donors for an additional $27.4 million for its consolidated regional plan, but so far has only received $4.71million.

“We do not know our future,” said one of the refugees. “People come and take pictures and speak with us, but they all leave at the end.”

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Categories: Lebanon, Palestine, Syria | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

3. Blogging and reporting on five months of revolution from Syria: 5-6 June 2011, Golan to Yarmuk: Palestinians joining the Syrian uprising?

5-6 June 2011, Golan to Yarmuk: Palestinians joining the Syrian uprising?

28 June 2011
yarmouk unrwa bannerWhat 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’.

Interesting Links:

On the legal status of Palestinians in Syria:

The events of Yarmuk reported by Electronic Intifada:

Appendix on Yarmuk

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

Categories: Palestine, Syria | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

1. Blogging and reporting on five months of revolution from Syria: A witness account from the siege of Dara’a

A piece I originally wrote for the New Internationalist after visiting  a lawyer in Dummar (Rif Dimashq), who was married to a woman from Dara’a.


People vs the regime

syria-daraa-siege-8A3GMB8-x-large

WEB EXCLUSIVE

The regime bans foreign journalists from reporting the people’s uprising in Syria, but the people report it themselves. A witness account from the Syrian city of Dara’a.

Ahmad is a student at the University of Damascus. We met last Friday during the demonstrations in the neighbourhood of Midan. Although worried about the fate of the revolution, he is still confident that ‘in 70 days the regime will fall’. He wants me to meet someone whose family has witnessed the hell of Dara’a, the epicentre of the protests, which has been under military siege since 25 April.

Omar is a lawyer who lives in the suburbs of Damascus. When he was a judge (before being downgraded because of his refusal to set free some criminals with high-placed acquaintances), he used to work really close to Dara’a’s security chief Atef Najib.

Omar’s wife and two of his kids are still in Dara’a. According to the Syrian authorities, the army withdrew from Dara’a on 5 May, but Omar assures me that the tanks are still surrounding the city – they just changed their strategy, occupying some of the surrounding villages.

Dara’a was already suffering from a series of political and economic grievances, but the last straw unleashing popular rage was the arrest of a group of kids for writing anti-government graffiti back in March. Omar remembers that episode very well. As the kids were detained, their fingernails were removed; their fathers, demanding their release, were told by the head of security forces in Dara’a, Atef Najib, to forget about it. Najib offered himself to impregnate their wives to have new children.

During Omar’s interview with Imam Shaykh Ahmad Sayasna of the Omari mosque in Dara’a, the religious leader clearly complained about the way Dara’a’s needs have been totally ignored by the regime. During the siege, the situation has deteriorated to pure sectarian violence.

Omar recalls the brutal killing of his brother-in-law. ‘It was 6am. He went down to the computer repair shop, where he used to work. He wanted to lock up the shop to avoid thefts. You see, in those days the army and the mukhabarat were looting people’s houses, stealing everything in gold they could find. The army entered the shop. They asked him his name. Hamza, he said. Hamza is a typical Sunni name, so they shot him in the head, cut his limbs and burned the body.’

The owner of the shop was hiding in the upper floor; he witnessed the whole scene. Because of the curfew imposed on the city, the shreds of Hamza’s body were handed over to his family only 10 days later. While pointing at the corpse, a general told the family: ‘You want freedom? Here’s your freedom.’

Omar might go to Dara’a in the coming days but, like all of the city’s inhabitants, he will be forced to stay at home for fear of being hit by snipers who don’t even spare children. ‘A child went into the streets and got shot in the leg by a sniper. The child’s father rushed to protect him with his body and the sniper immediately killed him. Then the sniper descended from the rooftop, removed the father’s body and killed the child.’

The families of the murdered are denied a proper funeral. In order to prevent further demonstrations, the army limited the number of people allowed to attend the procession to six. Moreover, not all families are allowed to receive the bodies of their dead relatives: Omar explains me how they are firstly obliged to sign a declaration which acquits the army from any responsibility for the massacres committed by ‘armed terrorist groups’.

Omar says that in the period of the ‘official’ siege, from 25 April to 5 May, most of the men and boys of Dara’a have been killed. However, the death toll shown on the national TV channels was reduced – the army had removed most of the corpses from the streets. Around 10 bodies were left to be seen by the cameras; many others had been eaten by dogs. For the same purpose of showing a sanitized version of the truth, the troops have been ordered to rebuild the most damaged areas. Afterwards, Alawi families have been gathered in Dara’a, dressed up in traditional Hourani clothes so that the national media could broadcast their women and kids throwing flowers on the tanks, thereby backing the official version of a military intervention requested by the civilians.

But who killed members of the security forces? The so-called Salafis, who are blamed by the government for scattering chaos across the country, according to Omar, are usually Alawis who grew their beards and dressed up like Sunni fundamentalists. ‘It is enough that they raise their hands to spot their tattoos portraying Bashar al-Assad and [the cousin of the prophet] Ali,’ Omar points out. On the other hand, he admits that some of the demonstrators opened fire on the army, but says they were only reacting to the ongoing massacre.

A rally of some 4,000 people departed from one of the surrounding villages to bring food supplies to Dara’a. At the second checkpoint, the soldiers shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is the greatest), so people expected them to be merciful. On the contrary, the outcome was another massacre. Omar confirms that after this episode, the protesters seized some weapons to raise them against the army.

The choice of armed resistance is a difficult one, considering the military imbalance between the protesters and the regime. But people are frustrated.

This piece was written in Damascus on 12 May 2011. Nates Recoias is a pseudonym.

Categories: Syria | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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