Over 5,000 residents of a Palestinian refugee enclave in the Syrian port city of Latakia were forced to flee following an attack by the army last week. This prompted outrage from Palestinian leaders outside Syria. Our Palestinian Observers in Syria, however, say they did not feel their community was specifically targeted.
The four-day attack on the refugee neighbourhood, known as the Raml camp, left 26 dead. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) demanded access to the camp, but Syrian authorities refused to let its representatives in.
Nidal, an Observer who lives in the country’s largest refugee camp, the Yarmouk camp in Damascus, believes the attack was not directed at Palestinians:
“The refugee camps in Syria aren’t exclusively Palestinian. Poor Syrians live there too. These are not even strictly speaking camps, but rather neighbourhoods within cities. I think the army’s attack was directed toward the Syrians, and that the Palestinian refugees were just collateral damage.”
Nizar, another Palestinian refugee living in Damascus, does not think his community will join the opposition:
“Everything is calm now, both in Damascus and in Latakia. Palestinians staged a few protest rallies after the camp was attacked, but the turnout was rather low. The thing is, in Syria, we are given nearly all the rights enjoyed by citizens, save for the right to vote or run for office. This is not at all the case for refugees in other Arab nations. We also share the same duties as Syrian citizens [for example, serving in the military]. But we are conscious of the fact that we are not Syrian, and it could prove very costly for us to take any sort of stance.”
This neutral attitude, shared by most refugees in Syria, is explained by the fact that the Syrian regime has been a staunch ally to the Palestinian cause. It has positioned itself as a buffer against Israel, notably in the Golan Heights.
However, Nizar says he is not worried about a potential change of regime:
“Palestinian leaders quickly condemned the Raml camp attack, because Palestinian refugees have thus far stayed out of the protest movement. Refugees have learned from history and no longer want to be part of any conflicts in region, as was the case in Jordan and Lebanon. But I don’t think Palestinian refugees should be worried about what might happen to them if Bashar al-Assad’s regime falls. We have been here since 1948 and we have integrated Syrian society.”
Nidal is not so optimistic. He says the opposition is not interested in the fate of Palestinian refugees:
“Syria’s Palestinians are rather well integrated economically. But we must not forget that we are not citizens, and that there are only 400,000 of us in the country [467,000, according to UNRWA]. The opposition does not take us seriously. It never talks about us when it details its plans for a new Syria. Nor does it address the Palestinian question, which is an important one due to the country’s geographic location. Some Syrians say we are taking away their jobs. These critics could become more vocal if al-Assad, whose regime has always defended the Palestinian cause, were to leave power. I do not support the current regime, but if the regime were to fall, I would fear a situation like the one in Iraq, where refugees would be forced to flee the country by the thousands.”
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Sarra Grira.