Palestinians in Syria Are Reluctantly Drawn Into Vortex of Uprising

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BEIRUT, Lebanon -- The body of a Hamas official was found in his home on Wednesday night, bearing marks of torture. A colonel in the Palestine Liberation Army was sprawled in his car on Tuesday, fatally shot near his home. Three Palestinians were shot down in the alleyways of a refugee camp late last Sunday by a group of unidentified gunmen.

None of these deaths happened in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank, but in Syria, where Palestinian refugees are being pulled into that nation's dark struggle. All are still a mystery, a testament to the uneasy circumstances for the half-million Palestinian refugees caught in an uprising their leaders have desperately tried to sidestep.

Under the ruling Assad family, Syria has long defined itself as a champion of resistance to Israel, providing a haven for Palestinians, granting refugees full civil rights and hosting radical militant groups like Hamas. But the brutal crackdown on the opposition by President Bashar al-Assad's government, with more than 10,000 killed since the uprising began in March 2011, has put the Palestinians in a difficult spot, forced to choose between the popular mood and their benefactor. The top Hamas leadership chose to leave, while other groups stayed behind, laying the groundwork for an emerging battle for the Palestinians.

"The Palestinian situation in Syria is very sensitive," said Ali Baraka, the Hamas representative in Beirut. "Anything we say might jeopardize the fate of Palestinians in Syria, so we don't want to interfere."

Hamas experienced firsthand just how volatile the situation had become when on Wednesday the Hamas official, Kamal Ghanaja, was found dead.

While some in Hamas reflexively blamed the Israeli spy agency, Mossad, many say the most likely suspect is a homegrown one this time. Syrian opposition activists say that Mr. Ghanaja was probably killed by the Assad government, which has been angry that Hamas's leadership pulled out of Syria early this year and has spoken out on behalf of the opposition.

The Assad government has been silent on that case, but it was quick to blame "armed terrorists," its usual term for the opposition, for the killing of Col. Ahmed Salih Hassan on Tuesday. He was shot in his car in Sahnaya, about six miles south of Damascus, becoming the sixth Palestine Liberation Army officer assassinated in Syria since January, according to opposition activists inside the country; the highest-ranking victim was a brigadier general, Anwar al-Saqa, killed on June 5.

The government says that opposition gunmen killed them because of their role in supporting the Syrian military. Although technically a military wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Palestine Liberation Army in Syria is incorporated into the Syrian military. Opposition activists say the officers were killed because they refused to participate in Syrian crackdowns.

"Ahmed Salih Hassan was killed in a pro-regime town, and there were no armed opposition fighters," said Abu Jihad, a Palestinian activist with Fatah. "Some people said that he refused to fight with the Assad forces."

Palestinians say they are feeling increasingly squeezed by the government and by their own neighbors. Like many of the older generation of leaders, Abu Jihad, who is 60 and lives in the sprawling Yarmouk camp in Damascus, says Palestinians should avoid supporting either side. "The Assad regime wants us to express our support for his regime, and the opposition wants us to demonstrate against the Assad regime," he said.

Palestinians are only too aware of what happened when they picked sides in other host countries. Hundreds of thousands were ejected from Kuwait for having supported Saddam Hussein during his invasion in 1990, for instance, and a smaller number from Iraq after he fell.

"In every war, we're blamed for what happens whether we're involved or not," said Abu Maher, a Fatah official in Lebanon. "We don't want to bet on who will win or who will lose."

The deaths of three Palestinians, shot late last Sunday in the Nayrab camp in Aleppo, offer an example of this. At first it seemed like a clear case of a Syrian opposition killing. Accused of working as paid shabiha, or armed thugs, in support of the government, they were killed by an armed group whose members called themselves revolutionaries, according to other Palestinian refugees.

However, Omar, a Syrian activist in Damascus interviewed by Skype, said that government officials wanted Palestinians to fear the popular uprising. "They invented the story that Palestinian refugees were attacked by antiregime armed groups so as to stir antagonistic feelings, but none of it is true," said Omar, who uses only one name out of concerns for his security.

Syria prides itself on being one of the few Arab countries to offer Palestinians full civil rights. They can own property and hold government jobs, for instance.

"It is hard for us to forget that Syria deals with us as ordinary citizens," said Abu Mohammad, 40, another refugee, who runs a candy store in the Yarmouk camp. "If Assad is gone, no Arab or foreign state will host us," he said. "We want to live in peace and look after our sons, not to live in tents again."

Many other Palestinians in Syria, especially younger ones, disagree. With so many civil rights, they were raised essentially as Syrians, and they find it hard not to be swept up in the fervor on the streets.

"Palestinians are not neutral," said Noor Bitar, the spokesman for the Revolutionary Council Leadership in Damascus, interviewed by telephone. "At the individual level there has been a participation in protests, blocking roads and other revolutionary activities."

Nidal, 23, a Palestinian refugee and a university student in Damascus, who gave only one name out of security concerns, said he and his friends were reluctant at first to support the Syrian uprising. "Day by day, Palestinians began to see and hear by their eyes and ears what the Assad regime does, and this pushed us, slowly, to change."

In addition, most Palestinians are Sunni Muslims, as are most Syrian opponents of Mr. Assad's Alawite-dominated government.

Now, Nidal said, he and his friends have joined the cause. "We know that a regime comes and goes, but people stay forever."

At the same time, there have been some Palestinians who have been quick to pick up weapons for Mr. Assad, particularly followers of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine -- General Command. This radical group, regarded in the West as a terrorist organization, has long been sheltered in Syria by the Assads, as has its leader, Ahmed Jabril.

Activist Palestinians complain that the General Command has become so supportive of the Syrian government that its armed cadres are used as auxiliaries by the secret police, or mukhabarat.

"Every Palestinian in Syria knows that the PFLP-GC's fighters are working for the mukhabarat and running security patrols for the regime," Abu Jihad said. "I worry that their bad actions will hurt us in the future with the Syrian people."

A Syrian employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Damascus.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published June 30, 2012 1:00 PM


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