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Perceptions of the Syrian uprising from Shatila camp

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Perceptions of the Syrian uprising from Shatila


Franklin Lamb


 Shatila Palestinian refugee camp, despite being targeted over the past six decades for numerous crimes including massacres from various sources, in many ways is representative of all the Palestinian camps in Lebanon.

 Located in South Beirut, Shatila was one of the first Palestinian refugee camps set up during the 1948 Nakba.  When the Lebanon-Palestine border was closed on May 15th 1948, a gentleman named  Abed Bisher ("Abou Kamal")  from the north-western Galilee village of Majd al-Kroom,  found himself  trapped  inside Lebanon as hundreds of his countrymen were streaming in seeking short term sanctuary.  Mr. Bisher, was in fact a mujahidine leader whose mission in Lebanon was to purchase arms for the Mufti of Jerusalem to be deployed in the scattered villages in the Galilee, then still under heavy assault from Zionist forces.

Shocked by what he was witnessing of his Palestinian neighbors squatting wherever they could find some vacant ground, often in appalling conditions, and unable to complete his original mission, Bisher focused on helping his countrymen as best he could.

His good luck included making the acquaintance of a Lebanese gentleman named, al Basha Shatila a Lebanese Sunni Muslim businessman sympathetic to the arriving refugees. Mr. Shatila allowed Bisher  the use an oblong strip of land roughly  200 by 400 meters free of charge. From the newly organized UN Agency, UNRWA, Bisher and his growing group of refugees were able to procure 20 tents and before long also milk and rice rations.

Bisher sought out refugees from his village but no refugee was refused sanctuary in "Shatila Camp" and by early 1950 nearly two dozen Palestinian refugee families were accommodated and a few months later there were 60 families and by the early 1960's more than 3000 refugees lived in and around Shatila camp. While approximately half the camp population was from Majd al_Kroom, more than 25 of the 531 Zionist ethnically cleansed villages were represented in Shatila.

The uprising in Syria has re-opened some old wounds in Shatila camp and between the Baathist Assad regime, now in its 41st year, and Lebanon's Palestinian refugees.  Today the Palestinian refugee community in Lebanon appears divided over the credibility of pledged "regime reforms" and whether more patience is warranted.

 A growing number of Palestinians, according to activists in Shatila, Burj al Barajneh, and Bedawi camps, as well as contacts with camp residents elsewhere, suggests ambivalent opinions generally but a perceptible trend shift in favor of the Syrian uprising. This is explained by some camp residents as being due to the fact that  the killing shows no signs of ending  despite global pleas this week from among others,  UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.  Yet doubts and concerns persist over the groups seen exploiting the unrest.

There is close association between Palestinians in Lebanon and Syria where since the start of the Syrian uprising, young Palestinians have been protesting against groups closely associated with the regime and tensions exploded in June when "pro-regime thugs " opened fire on a demonstration in Yarmouk camp, killing 14 refugees. In retaliation, Palestinian protesters then burned down the militia's headquarters.

 Relations between Syria and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon's 12 camps and as many "gatherings' have been complicated since the early 1970's as Syria played the Palestinian card in the international arena in competition with Yassar Arafat and was inconsistent in its attitudes and actions toward the refugees during the Lebanese civil war including participating in the 1976 massacre at the Tel al Zaatar Palestinian refugee camp.  

Yet every Palestinian in Lebanon knows and appreciates the Syrian government's stance toward more than 130,000 fellow refugees who sought sanctuary in Syria in April and May of the 1948 Nakba.  They know well the chasm that exists between the civil rights afforded their family members, former villagers, and fellow refugees in Syria on the one hand and Lebanon's continuing refusal to grant them even the most elementary civil right to work and to own a home. 

In sharp contrast to Lebanon, the 500,000 Palestinian refugees living in nine official camps and three unofficial camps in Syria have been granted the same civil rights as their Syrian hosts.

 According to AUB Sociology  Professor Sari Hanafi, who was raised in Yarmouk camp in Damascus, Palestinian refugees in Syria are more socially integrated than in any of the host countries in the Middle East. Since January 25, 1949 their status has been guaranteed by Syrian Law 450 and then Law 260 of October 7, 1956.  In combination, these laws they grant Palestinians essentially the same rights and responsibilities as Syrian citizens including equal rights to education, owning property, the right to work, business and military service, all while retaining their Palestinian nationality. In Syria Palestinians do military training and serve in the Syrian army in what is called the Palestine Liberation Army (Hattin Forces).

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