October 31, 2012 5:32 pm

Palestinians in Syria face off over Assad

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Long-feared violence between factions of Syria’s large Palestinian population has moved a step closer, as rival militias prepared to face off in a strategically important Damascus district heavily populated by refugees.

Rebels fighting against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime said on Wednesday that they had set up a Palestinian group to battle a pro-government armed Palestinian brigade in Yarmouk Camp, which is at the heart of a struggle for the capital’s southern suburbs.

A confrontation would bring to a head tensions among Syria’s estimated 500,000 Palestinians, who are grateful for the haven the country has offered in the past, but have grown increasingly divided over the 19-month uprising against the government.

“The regime has been trying to enlist the Palestinians, and the rebels have been trying to do the same,” said Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. “As the civil war in Syria continues to unfold, I think the Palestinian fratricide will be a chapter.”

Syrian rebels said they had armed Palestinians to fight a militia run by Ahmed Jibril, head of the Damascus government-backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. Mr Jibril’s group has for some time controlled security in Yarmouk Camp, a community of apartment blocks and shops thought to be home to 150,000 Palestinians, as well as many Syrians.

Antagonism has been growing in Yarmouk as it has suffered during the war waged since July by regime forces on rebels who moved into areas of south Damascus. Yarmouk is hemmed in by conflict zones and by late September was bearing the scars of shells itself, after loyalist forces bombarded its edges in pursuit of rebel fighters.

On one street close to Yarmouk’s border with the rebellious Tadamon district, a man pointed to a three foot long, oval hole in the road made by a shell, which he said had killed his cousin in August. “He was standing there, and we found his body at the end of the shop,” he said, pointing down the length of a butcher’s premises, where the force of the blast had torn large chunks of plaster from the ceiling.

An activist known as Abu Raas said people in Yarmouk were also angry with the regime because it had killed many Palestinians who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, including 20 who died in an attack on the neighbouring district of Hajar al-Aswad. “They weren’t targeting them because they were Palestinian – but because they were in the area,” he said.

Yarmouk Palestinians said that anti-regime feeling had been stoked further by an ill-fated trip organised in June last year by the Jibril militia, to protest against Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights.

At least nine Palestinians from Yarmouk died at the demonstration, and when anti-regime chanting began at their funerals, 20 more people were killed when militiamen opened fire, activists said.

Yet more Palestinians have turned against the Assad regime simply because they see its ruling Alawite religious minority clique as targeting their fellow Sunni Muslims, who make up the majority of the country’s population.

In a sign of deteriorating sectarian relations, the Palestinian Islamist Hamas group closed its Damascus office earlier this year.

Yarmouk’s troubles have added a new dimension to the complex relationship between Palestinians and Syria, which has been one of the few countries in the region to admit them in large numbers after the creation of Israel in 1948.

While some Palestinians have in the past expressed gratitude to the 40-year-old Assad family regime for this, others give no credit to a dictatorship that they say oppresses Syrians and non-Syrians alike.

“We are Syrians, but without nationality,” laughed another activist, known as Samih. “They beat Syrians like they beat Palestinians: there is no difference.”

Syria’s armed opposition now wants to challenge the authority of the Jibril armed group’s patrols and checkpoints on Yarmouk’s streets, where children seem to play table football on every corner. The militiamen carry identity cards and are officially neutral, letting neither government nor rebel forces into the area – though some residents claim they favour loyalists and allow them to pass.

One of Mr Jibril’s militiaman, named Hussein, said that even the group itself was now strained, with some members – including him – having turned against the regime during the conflict.

He spoke with a pessimism that seems dangerously close to being borne out.

“If no one attacks from outside, I am sure the Palestinians will start fighting each other,” he said. “Killing, blood, revenge – what will happen then?”

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