Refugee Camps as War Zones
How Lebanon's Palestinians Are Being Pulled Into Syria's War
by FRANKLIN LAMB
Homs Palestinian Refugee Camp
Historically, Palestinian refugees, wherever
they have sought temporary sanctuary following the ethnic cleansing of their
country by the 19th century Zionist colonial enterprise, and
pending their return to Palestine, have insisted on avoiding local and
international conflicts while seeking a modicum of interim civil rights from
the host countries.
This was true in Jordan during the run up to Black September in 1970,
at the beginning of the Lebanese Civil war in 1975, the 1991 Kuwait crisis, the
2003 US invasion of Iraq and obtains especially today in the current crisis in
Syria. For a number of reasons including poor tactical decisions by their
leadership they have not always succeeded, and consequently they have paid
s steep price in lives, jobs, housing and expulsions from host countries.
In Syria, both the largest Palestinian refugee camp, Yarmouk, with its
125,000 residents, and Khan al-Sheeh, the second largest of the 14 camps with
45,000 before the crisis but currently swelled by another 26,000 mainly from
Yarmouk camp, have become virtual war zones with large sections of the
camps being overrun by gunmen fighting in support of the "Free Syrian
Army." All but two of the camps in Syria have been infiltrated by opposition
forces and consequently have been targeted by government forces seeking
to destroy the rebels. At times the camp residents have resisted both sides by
demanding that the camps' normally strict neutrality be respected. Engaging
initially in peaceful protects when outsiders invaded, some protests turned
violent when their demands for camp neutrality were rejected.
Khan al-Sheeh, whose residents are from tribes and clans in northern
Palestine, and who lost 22 camp residents to Zionist occupier gunfire during
the May 2011 Nakba Day events on the Golan Heights, will be a formidable
foe if they take up arms which they have not done for the past 33 years.
In January 2013, the Syria conflict entered into the camp when opposition
forces -- a combination of Free Syrian Army (FSA) and al-Nusra Front
fighters -- arrived and insisted on recruits, offering $200 per month cash, free
cigarettes, a uniform, boots and of course an AK-47.
For the past five months, again like Yarmouk, Khan al-Sheeh and the other
camps in Syria have been caught in the crossfire as opposition fighters try
to advance toward the capital, while regime forces used cannons and rocket
fire to block their advance, resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths and
injuries. This week, so far in vain, the camp popular committees yet again
appealed to both sides to observe a ceasefire within any Palestinian camp in
Syria and also in Lebanon, the latter currently experiencing increased
challenges for its 12 camps to stay out of the conflict.
Pressuring Lebanon's camps to join Syria's civil war
Lebanon's widely respected independent leftist daily, As-Safir, has reported
that veteran security and intelligence officers of the Lebanese security
services are claiming to have information, but not precise details regarding
number and location of "organized Takfiri (Sunni) networks" in Lebanon.
The head of one security service told As-Safir, "the monitoring of the terrorist
networks cannot be very detailed since they are solely located in the
Palestinian camps, mainly in Ain el Helweh."
This statement, like others these days in the Lebanese sectarian media,
appears intended to incite the public against the refugees, inducing them to
join the fighting. Another officer, closely working on the Lebanese
government "terrorism" file, claims, again without offering any probative or
material evidence, that "the only serious faction in Lebanon right now
consists of the Ziad al-Jarrah Units that are affiliated with the Abdullah
Azzam battalions." Both have some Palestinian gunmen. Abdullah Azzam is
the most experienced group and it is present in Ain el Helweh. The officer
indicated that he agrees with the general theory that as long as the military
situation in Syria remains unsettled, the Lebanese Palestinian camps are
open to all possibilities, including Palestinian armed involvement.
Other calls are being heard from Beirut, Saida and Tyre in the south, and also
up north in Tripoli for Palestinians to comply with the fatwas being issued
for all Sunni to fight the Bashar Assad regime and to build a "Sunni army"
patterned after the Lebanese civil war-era PLO forces. How significant is the
sentiment favoring this dangerous call is unknown. However, in all of the
above noted areas, some Palestinians, mainly unemployed youngsters have
been lured by offers of cash to take part in training, much like occurred
before the 26 month old Syria conflict.
Some Salafist-jihadist types in Lebanon, especially near Tripoli's Bedawi,
and Nahr al Bared camps, as well as Ain el Helwe down south in Saida, are
pushing among Palestinian youth the argument that if they join the war in
Syria they will gain the internationally-guaranteed civil rights that all the
other refugees receive except Palestinians in Lebanon. Part of the argument
being pitched is that they are not going to get even elementary civil rights
in Lebanon from Israelis, the UN or the international community, and
certainly not from the EU or the Americans. Palestinians in Lebanon's camps
are being lectured that they will get civil rights here only when they take
them by force, which is their right and their jihadist religious duty.
These arguments will fail, with few exceptions, among the quarter million
Palestinian refugees actually still in Lebanon, as they have in the past.
But the Palestinians' decent into deepening sectarian and religious divisions
here in Lebanon is worrisome. Scholars, political analysts and even elements
of the National Lebanese Resistance are counseling that an effective, moral,
religious, and political measure that could bring Sunni and Shia together in
Lebanon, while thwarting the schemes being hatched to get the Palestinians
involved in the Syrian crisis, would be for the Lebanese Parliament to use
90 minutes of its ample free time -- in as much as the Parliamentary elections
will not take place next month as scheduled -- to address the issue of
Palestinian civil rights in that country.
By using 20 minutes of the proposed 90, recommended by the Palestine Civil
Rights Campaign here, Lebanon's Parliament can, in one fell swoop, reach
out to the Sunni community and the Christian community (about 90% of
Palestinians in Lebanon are Sunni and approximately 10% Christian) by
employing a quick and tidy yea-nay vote to repeal the 2001 racist law that
forbids home ownership for Palestinian refugees here. This law outlawing
the home ownership civil right for Palestinians only, as expressed by the two
initial sponsors still in Parliament, was only originally meant as a 2001
election year gimmick to garner anti-Palestinian votes and not ever intended
to be implemented.
History teaches us that the 2001 law was in fact part of the anti-Palestinian
"pay-back" for the PLO's involvement in the fifteen-year Lebanese civil war
(1975-1990). In what many Palestinians in the camps here objected to then
and continue to view as a cataclysmic error, its leadership ignominiously
withdrew from Lebanon in the late summer of 1982, under Zionist and
Reagan administration pressure and false promises of an immediate
With the remaining 70 minutes, the Resistance-dominated Parliament could
reach out to the Sunni and Christian communities as noted above and grant
Palestinian refugees in Lebanon the same right to work that every refugee
everywhere has, including those in the apartheid state of occupied Palestine.
The same right as everyone is immediately granted when their passport is stamped at any
Lebanese border post.
This single act by Lebanon's Parliament, would help repair Shia-Sunni
relations globally and would dampen down -- and expose for what they are,
the extremist Salafist-jihadist-Wahhabist incitements to religious hatred,
both intra-Muslim and Muslim-Christian. It would also, according to several
Palestinian NGO's working in Lebanon, keep Palestinians out of the Syrian
Allowing Palestinians in Lebanon the internationally guaranteed right to
work, would also, according to studies by the UN International Labor
Organization and other academic studies, substantially build up Lebanon's
fragile economy by creating more than twice the number of jobs that
they would be employed at, including those in the 32 professions currently outlawed for Palestinian refugees.