RAMALLAH, West Bank -- For the Hafeiz family in Ramallah, the violence raging in Syria is just a computer click away.
The youngest members of the family, who are descended from Palestinian refugees who fled central Israel in 1967, are divided between Jordan, Syria and the West Bank. They’ve always relied on email and Skype to keep in touch, but since violence broke out in Syria more than a year ago, the computer has become a lifeline.
“I have their email passwords and they have mine. It’s a way of checking up on each other – the ones who can still use computers, at least,” said Sami Hafeiz, a 22-year-old student in Ramallah. “They are very active online.”
He showed McClatchy some of the recent conversations he’d held with his cousins.
“You see here, they are worried about food, and medicine for our uncle. They write here about trying to get out, but it is impossible,” he said, scrolling through the older messages. “Some of them have now joined the fighting, others have not.”
The fate of some 500,000 Palestinian refugees currently living in Syria has recently become more perilous, as the violence that has raged in Syria for more than a year finally reached the doorstep of some of that country’s largest Palestinian refugee camps.
Last month, the Yarmouk refugee camp just south of Damascus became a focus of fighting after forces loyal to President Bashar Assad used live ammunition to disperse a demonstration, killing dozens; on Thursday, mortar rounds struck near the camp, killing 20 people, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the international agency with responsibility for providing services to millions of Palestinian refugees throughout the Middle East. The U.N. agency said it did not know how many of the casualties were Palestinian, however.
“There were Palestinians killed in the fighting before, but this is when they realized that Assad was not going to spare them,” Hafeiz said.
The advocacy group Human Rights Watch has noted that Palestinians have increasingly picked up arms and joined the rebel Free Syrian Army. Exact numbers are unknown, but in recent months lists of casualties published by anti-Assad groups include dozens of Palestinians. Col. Kassem Saadeddine, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, told a Lebanese newspaper that “Palestinians are fighting alongside us, and they are well trained."
Palestinians complain that amid all the talk of Syria’s civil war, the plight of Palestinian refugees has been forgotten.
Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, said that the fighting had forced the agency to evacuate all but three of its international staff from Syria.
“Of our 3,600 Palestinian staff, an estimated 2,500 have been affected in some way by the fighting and all Palestinian staff have been told to stay at home,” he said. He described the emergency services available to Palestinians in Syria as very limited.
Gunness said the U.N. agency did not have access to an accurate list of Palestinians injured or killed in the recent fighting. He estimated that at least 225,000 Palestine refugees have been affected by the fighting across the country.
Some Palestinians have begun to question why their officials have largely remained silent over the plight of Palestinians in Syria.