Concern rises among Palestinians for their relatives in Syria


McClatchy Newspapers

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.

“There is a sense that the Palestinians in Syria are a forgotten people, that their leaders have left them on their own,” said one European diplomat familiar with the situation in Syria, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the subject. “We have a very partial picture of what is happening in Syria at best, and an even more partial picture of what is happening to Palestinians.”

He said that government forces originally had tried to enlist Palestinian support by offering incentives for attending pro-Assad rallies.

“There was, at the beginning, a sense that the Palestinians could ride this out on the sidelines,” he said.

For the first few months of the uprising, Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian faction that rules the Gaza Strip, stood by Assad, making its support known through its silence on the growing anti-Assad movement. By the start of this year, however, Hamas had quietly evacuated all its top leadership from Syria and relocated them to Egypt and Qatar. By February, Gaza-based Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was publically saluting the “heroic people of Syria, who are striving for freedom, democracy and reform.” Hamas authorities in Gaza also began allowing anti-Assad demonstrations.

The Palestine Liberation Organization, the umbrella group that runs the West Bank, was also slow to take sides in the fighting. While Iranian news reports have suggested that the PLO backed the Assad regime, and even had members fighting alongside government troops, PLO officials have increasingly spoken out against what they call “Syrian brutality.” When pressed by reporters last month, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called on Syrian forces to stop “attacking the Palestinian refugees,” adding that “crimes against humanity” were being carried out in Syria.

Hafeiz said there is sense that Palestinians will have to help themselves.

“The situation around our family has become more aggressive,” he said. “Even the cousins who do not think they should get involved in the Syrians’ civil war might pick up a gun to protect their family.”

Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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