Phil Sands
The National
May 5, 2011 - 12:00am

Syria's Palestinians, wary of being sucked into an internecine fight, are struggling to remain neutral as the authorities and anti-government protesters pressure them to choose a side in the Syrian uprising.

Half a million Palestinian refugees live in Syria, a majority of them in Damascus.

They have become largely assimilated: marrying into Syrian families, employed with Syrian co-workers in government bureaucracies and housed alongside Syrian neighbours.

Palestinian politics are also heavily tied in to Syria, which hosts offices of all of the major factions, including the headquarters for Hamas as well as the group's leader-in-exile, Khalid Meshaal. Damascus has long exerted a strong influence over the Palestinians' struggle for statehood, through its backing for militant groups that continue to wage war with Israel.

Those extensive links are making it difficult for Palestinians not to become embroiled in an uprising that has come to dominate Syrian daily life. Syria's Palestinians now have friends and family being killed, injured and arrested in protests. They also have friends and relatives involved with the security services suppressing those same demonstrations.

Ala, who did not want his last name revealed out of fear for his safety, said: "We're lucky to be treated like Syrian citizens. We've not been isolated or discriminated against like the Palestinians in other places, in Iraq or Lebanon." Ala, 26, has lived his whole life in Yarmouk, a suburb that began life as a Palestinian refugee camp but that is now very much part of greater Damascus's urban sprawl. Today more Syrians live there than Palestinians.

"But that also means were not isolated on this issue either," he continued. "I've got friends who are involved in the protests and I support them, I'm with the idea of democracy and freedom.

"Some of my neighbours have lost cousins and sons in the protests, so of course I'm affected by that. It's all anyone is talking about and they want us [the Palestinians] to engage with it and join them. They say we have the right and the responsibility to be part of it."

To date, however, his support has been as a spectator not participant in the demonstrations that have erupted in suburbs close to Yarmouk such as Hajar Aswad and Kadam. Ala has stayed away from rallies, largely out of fear.

"If I go along to a protest and the security pick me up, they'll say I'm meddling in Syria's business, I'll lose my life, they could kick me out of the country," he said. "I have to be careful when I'm talking to people, I can only tell someone I really trust that I'm with the anti-regime group."

Those on the other side of the divide seem to be taking similar positions - partial in their hearts but not actively involved in what they see as a family argument to which they are outsiders.

Abu Jasim, in his mid-50s, a card-carrying member of Syria's ruling Baath Party and employed as a mid-ranking administrator in a government office, said: "Bashar al Assad is the best man to lead Syria, and the best for the Palestinians" said

He is firmly opposed to the growing protest movement,and accepts the authorities' argument that Islamic terrorist groups intent on destroying the country have hijacked demonstrations.

"The priority must be stability and security, and finishing the armed gangs," he said. "What good is democracy and freedom if there is chaos and violence and you cannot even leave your house safely?"

Although supportive of Syria's rulers, he said it was important to remain publicly neutral. He also said heavy-handed assaults on civilian protesters by the Syrian security services should be criticised.

"It's absolutely not for the Palestinians to go to the street on this," he said. "I support President Assad and the political leadership but I do tell Syrian friends and co-workers that there has been very bad behaviour by the security."

Among the pro-regime Palestinians there is also fear, but of a different kind to that felt by the teenagers and those in their 20s and 30s backing their Syrian friends in protests.

"We worry about the future," Abu Jasim said. "The Syrians have supported the Palestinian cause more than anyone and if there is a new government, it may take a different position, it might be against us."

He referred to Iraq where, under Saddam Hussein, Palestinians enjoyed limited privileges that were stripped away when he was deposed. In the chaos of civil war that followed, members of Iraq's Shiite majority turned against the Palestinian refugees, accusing them of being Saddam loyalists and members of his loathed security apparatus.

"Today we have jobs. Our political parties are allowed to work here.

We are even allowed newspapers, something the Syrians can't have," Abu Jasim said. "If there is a new government they may take that from us."

Just as the anti-government uprising is creating discussion and division within some Syrian families, it is also dividing Palestinian households. Abu Jasim has a son-in-law and daughter who have sided with the protesters, although neither has actively joined in.

The son-in-law, aged in his late 20s, said: "We respect each other but it has made for some discomfort during family visits. I told him [Abu Jasim], 'You're with the government, I'm with the opposition, that's all there is to it. We're on opposite sides and you have to accept that.'"

Other Palestinians refused to even talk in detail about the subject, insisting they were strictly neutral. "We are living as guests here so we cannot be against the government but if we support the government he people will say we are agents working for the security services," said one. "We are neither. This is not our argument."

At a political level there are also signs of a schism. Officials in Damascus have been putting pressure on Hamas and other Palestinian factions to publicly side with them in their crackdown on demonstrators, saying they must choose who they will stand with in Syria's struggle.

Tensions rose significantly in March after officials in Damascus accused Yousef al Qaradawi, the Qatar-based Islamic cleric and spiritual head of the Muslim Brotherhood - including Hamas - of inciting sectarian hatred in Syria, after he backed demonstrators in a sermon.

Soon afterwards, Syrian media reported that Khalid Meshaal had distanced himself from Mr Qaradawi's remarks, only for the Hamas leader to take the unusual step of publicly saying he had done no such thing.

A Syrian analyst said: "Hamas are in a difficult position, they are being pulled in opposite directions. They cannot go against Qaradawi and cannot support violence against Syrian civilians but at the same time, they do not want to go against the Syrian regime, which is one of their main supporters."

Since that spat, rumours - denied both by Syria and Hamas - have circulated that the Islamic resistance movement is considering relocating its headquarters to Qatar. Syrian commentators have speculated that Hamas is responsible for leaking the story, as a warning to Damascus that if it piles on too much pressure over the uprising, the group does have attractive alternative options.

The sense that Damascus might be losing its influence over Hamas was further underlined last week when a reconciliation agreement was struck between Hamas and Fatah in Egypt - without Syrian involvement. That deal is due to be signed in Cairo today.

Officially Syria welcomed the accord as a "crowning" achievement for its own policy but, according to Syrian analysts, the deal came as a complete shock to Damascus.

"Syria's great fear is being sidelined in the arena of Arab politics," a Syrian analyst said. "They do not want their sacred foreign policy platform to be weakened but if they lose control over Hamas, that is what will happen."

Damascus has long used its support for Palestinian rights as a key source of legitimacy, its stance on the issue winning President Bashar al Assad a certain popularity across the Arab world.

"Syria positions itself as the upholder of Palestinian rights but without Hamas it would hold no major cards in the Palestinian game," the analyst said.


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