The fate of Palestinian refugees in Syria and Lebanon
By Pinhas Inbari
President Donald Trump made two foreign policy decisions that may have a negative consequence on the fate of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO): The decision to transfer the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the pronouncement to halt American aid to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the aid agency that has assisted Palestinian refugees for 70 years.
While many regional players such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco are involved in the question of Jerusalem, the refugee problem is specific to the Palestinians only. Therefore, changes in one direction or another will affect the Palestinians in general and the PLO in particular. Azmi Bishara, a Palestinian observer residing in Qatar, defined the refugee issue (and not Jerusalem) as the “essence” of the PLO, and without the Palestinian refugee problem, the PLO would not exist. In other words, even if Israel and the PLO were to reach an agreement on Jerusalem and the other clauses of the final status agreement, such as borders, the conflict would not be resolved until an agreement is reached on the refugee problem. On the other hand, if the refugee problem were to “disappear,” the PLO would probably disappear along with it.
What is the status of the Palestinian issue following the turmoil in the Middle East since the “Arab spring?” It is not only necessary to know the direction the issue is heading, but also the extent to which the agreement with the PLO is relevant in this regard. It is also important to question whether it would be necessary and appropriate to “solve the problem” or whether the Arab spring will create a dynamic whereby the problem will evaporate by itself, without any negotiations over it.
Any assessment of the Palestinian refugee camps must evaluate camps in different locations, each with its own different dynamic – the refugee camps in Syria, in Lebanon, on the West Bank, in Gaza, and those living in Jordan.
The most dramatic change took part in Syria. The brutal civil war caused significant demographic changes that can be defined as the war crime of ethnic cleansing. The Sunnis have been driven out of most of the country, and Shiites from Iraq and central Asia have been settled in their place. Inside the Umayyad Mosque, the Great Mosque of Damascus, the symbol of Sunni Islam, a place has now been allocated in its center for a Shiite hosayniya (a congregation hall used for Shiite ceremonies commemorating the martyrdom of Ḥosayn bin ʿAli).
The Alawite regime is seeking to construct a continuous Shiite presence from the Golan Heights through the Damascus region that would connect to the Alawite stronghold on the coast. As the Palestinian refugees are Sunnis, their fate is sealed, and they will be removed from the contiguous Shiite presence that the regime is seeking to create. The large Yarmouk refugee camp adjacent to Damascus, known as the “capital of the camps,” has ceased to exist.
The Alawite regime (which has been embraced by the Shiite Iranian regime) will also take its revenge on the Sunni Palestinians for betraying it. The main “external” headquarters of Hamas was established in 1999 in Damascus under Assad’s patronage after it was expelled from Jordan. However, while Syria granted patronage to one of the most important arms of the Muslim Brotherhood during the Syrian Civil War, Hamas established anti-regime underground Sunni cells in the Yarmouk camp with the encouragement of Qatar. Eventually, the fighters appeared under the banner of Akhnaf Bait Al Maqdis, which fought alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, at the time the military wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The anti-Assad Hamas activity does not refer to the entire organization, but to former Hamas politburo head Khaled Mashal’s wing, which is closely associated with Qatar. It was Mashal’s bodyguard, Mohammed Zaghmout, who founded the underground cell that formed the basis for al-Nusra in the camp, and later defected to the Syrian government’s side.
This same Mohammed Zaghmout represented the exiled Yarmouk camp at a conference for Palestinian refugees from Syrian camps held in Berlin on April 25, 2015. On the Yarmouk camp website, he said they came to Berlin to attack the PLO. The official Palestinian ambassador in Germany did not attend the conference, while the Turkish ambassador did turn up. There were harsh verbal exchanges between Zaghmout and the representatives of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), who attacked the Syrian regime for arresting Palestinians in the camp. The Turkish ambassador was also criticized by those present for Turkey’s treatment of refugees in its territory. Zaghmout himself attacked the Turkish representative. He asked why Turkey only referred to Palestinian prisoners in jails in Israel, but not to Palestinian prisoners in Assad’s jails; why he demanded the removal of the embargo on Gaza but not on the Yarmouk camp; and where was the Mavi Marmara flotilla when it came to the Palestinians in Syria? He asked why, in general, after coming back to conquer the refugee camps, the regime did not allow the refugees to return. The explanation, which will be discussed later, was that the PLO stopped representing the refugees in Syria, and to avoid conflict with Zaghmout and the other refugees, the PLO representative avoided attending the conference.
Hamas went on to take the PLO’s place at the conference for refugees in Europe, where other organizations beside Fatah were represented. It is important to note that the German government gave patronage to the conference of Palestinian refugees in Berlin, even though it was not part of the PLO framework, and the delegation of refugees outside the PLO framework was received at the German foreign ministry.
However, the Alawite regime also feels betrayed by the PLO. During the civil war, President Assad asked for Fatah’s support for the Syrian army during the conflict over the Yarmouk camp. Abbas Zaki, a senior Fatah official who mediated between Damascus and Ramallah, revealed that Assad wanted to rally Palestinian forces from the camps in Lebanon for the battle to liberate the camp, led by Munir Makdah. However, Mahmoud Abbas rejected this request, saying the PLO insisted on neutrality during the war. Therefore, when Assad sought to restructure Syria after the war, he did not feel that he owed anything to either Hamas or the PLO – or to the Palestinians in general.
According to reports on the ORIENT TV website, just before the Yarmouk camp was invaded by ISIS in April 2015, a Nusra and Akhnaf Bait Al Maqdis coalition ruled the camp. According to the website, both organizations were connected to Hamas’ Khaled Mashal, supported by Qatar. The difference between them was that Nusra was a Syrian organization composed of Sunni refugees from the Golan Heights seeking revenge on Assad, while Akhnaf Bait Al Maqdis was Palestinian. The Salafist Ahrar a-Sham organization was present but had no control. At the edge of the camp, under the auspices of UNRWA, was a Palestinian force of Assad supporters. It was not active because Assad needed Palestinian forces to support him on other fronts during the fighting in Syria.
In April 2015, Gen. Azzam Zakarneh, an emissary of Palestinian Authority/Fatah Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, arrived in Damascus. Zakarneh met with representatives of the regime and suggested that the camp should be neutral and that Akhnaf Bait Al Maqdis should lay down its arms while the Palestinians (it is not clear who, as Fatah was not present) should rule over the camp.
We were told by sources in Ramallah that Syria laid out its position to Zakarneh: the Yarmouk Camp had greatly exceeded the official boundaries of UNRWA. Actually, the Palestinian refugee area was only one-quarter of the camp’s size. Syria was ready to rehabilitate only the small area in UNRWA’s jurisdiction, and anyone seeking to rebuild would require permission from Assad’s Mahabharat [security agency].
In effect, only Assad loyalists would be permitted to return – if at all. The Yarmouk Camp would remain in ruins, and maybe only a symbolic area would be rehabilitated to safeguard the Palestinian “Right of Return” in the hands of Assad, and not the PLO.
A schism developed between the Palestinians and the Syrians. The Palestinian Akhnaf Bait Al Maqdis was inclined to accept the proposal, perhaps because Fatah was not present and so they would have to be the “Palestinian force.” The Syrian Nusra, however, rejected it and allied itself with Ahrar a-Sham, also Syrian, against the Palestinian Akhnaf. Someone, and it is not clear who, created a provocation by assassinating an ISIS senior official, and ISIS put an end to all efforts at mediation and invaded the camp from the nearby neighborhood of Al-Hajar al-Aswad. It joined up with Ahrar al-Sham and put an end to the Palestinian presence in the camp and destroyed PLO symbols including the graves of Abu Jihad and the other founders of the PLO’s military wing.
With this, both the Alawite regime and its Sunni rivals worked together to remove any sign or memory of the Palestinian history of the camp and the virtual existence of the Palestinians there. And with this, one of the staging points for the Palestinian refugees awaiting their “Right of Return” ceased to exist.
After ISIS took control of the camp, clashes were reported between it and the Palestinian groups supporting Assad, but not Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah.
Ramallah’s apathy toward the camp’s bitter fate stands out, as well as the harsh consequences for the PLO’s status among the Palestinian diaspora that resulted.
Resettling Yarmouk Refugees in Jericho Rejected by Abbas
As soon as the bitter fate of the Yarmouk camp became known there was a secret European initiative to transfer the refugees from the camp to the abandoned site of Aqbat Jaber in Palestinian-controlled Jericho. Mahmoud Abbas rejected the initiative, however, insisting that the right of return does not apply to territories in the Palestinian Authority but to Israel. In private conversations, senior Palestinian officials said that the Palestinian Authority does not want the refugees from Yarmouk within its boundaries because they support Hamas. In any case, the PLO prefers to nurture the Palestinian communities in Europe and the United States as powerful lobbies similar to AIPAC in America.
Sources from the opposition to the PLO in the West Bank pointed out that refugees from Yarmouk and the other camps did not gather on the Israeli border, but preferred to flee northward to areas under the patronage of Turkey because they understood that the Palestinian Authority was not interested in them. It did not represent them, and essentially, the refugees gave up on the “right of return.”
Ramallah’s apathy was the outcome of the PLO’s position as representative of the refugees. Ad hoc groups were formed to handle the Palestinian disaster, without any connection to the PLO, and some of them were even hostile to it, such as the “Action Group for the Palestinians of Syria.”
The “Action Group” homepage announced on December 30, 2018, that the camp moved to a Sunni area in northern Syria, a report confirming what we had heard from Palestinian opposition sources – that by not surging toward the border with Israel they were essentially surrendering the right of return.
Hamas saw the vacuum in leadership and gave its support to the Palestinian refugee organizations in Europe. Hamas is currently involved in building a new PLO, and providing patronage for the refugees abandoned by Ramallah may be an important foundation stone in this process.
The situation in the Lebanese camps is very different. After the destruction of the Yarmouk camp, the Ain al-Hilweh camp next to Sidon became the main camp and declared itself to be the new “capital of the diaspora.” Inside the camp and the other camps in Lebanon parallel struggles are waged along the lines of the war in Syria: between the supporters of the Syrian regime, meaning Hizbullah, and the Salafist groups, led by Osbat al-Ansar, which corresponds with ISIS in Lebanon. In the Lebanese context Hamas and Fatah are closer to Hizbullah, Hamas directly and Fatah through the Lebanese government, of which Hizbullah was a part when they joined forces against the Salafists. At the same time, there were clashes between Fatah and Hamas, mirroring the disputes between Ramallah and Gaza.
Another consequence of the flight of the Palestinian refugees from Syria was that they joined the camps in Lebanon along with non-Palestinian, Syrian refugees. This phenomenon is referred to as Muhajirun, meaning those who are forced to become migrants. These migrants have changed the demographic composition of the camps completely in Lebanon, and the more that Syria is emptied of its Syrian citizens, the proportion of Sunnis in Lebanon rises. It is estimated that the population of Ain al-Hilweh doubled as a result to some 120,000 people.
No Fatah/Mahmoud Abbas presence existed in the camps in Syria, and the conflicts there were between Hamas (Akhnaf Bait Al Maqdis) and ISIS, on the one hand, as well as between Hamas and Assad and the Palestinian forces loyal to the Syrian leader, on the other hand.
Meanwhile, on a parallel front, the strong Fatah presence in the camps in Lebanon created other lines of conflict. Within Fatah, there were clashes between the supporters of Mohammed Dahlan and the supporters of Mahmoud Abbas. Apart from this fighting, both organizations joined forces against ISIS in the Osbat al-Ansar camps, and Hamas and Fatah have both allied themselves with Hizbullah in one way or another.
However, since the camps in Lebanon were not destroyed and the influences of the old PLO have still been preserved within them, the website of the Ain al-Hilweh camp still reports on the news about Jerusalem and the Palestinian Authority. For example, the site’s home page from December 3, 2018, reports on the “danger” to Al-Aqsa from Israel’s excavation of the City of David.
One of the most important aspects of the developments in the refugee camps is the strengthening of the opposition within Fatah to Mahmoud Abbas by Mohammed Dahlan, and “his stream of democratic reforms.” For example, this website identifies with this Dahlan stream. As discussed further on, Dahlan also has a strong influence in the Jenin camp in the Palestinian Authority.
The Growth of Shiite Islam in the Damascus Region
In the wake of Shiite success in Syria, there was a significant change in Lebanon when the Osbat al-Ansar organization made contact with Iran and participated in an Islamic unity conference in Tehran alongside the Ayatollahs.
While the “right of return” in Syria disappeared with the dismantling of the refugee camps, in Lebanon, it has become impractical. It would mean that even the entry of a limited number of refugees into the Palestinian Authority would lead to the entry of al-Qaeda to the heart of both Israel and the PA, and the Palestinian Authority itself has no interest in this.
Arrangements between the Lebanese government and the PLO about the status of the refugees, known as the Cairo agreement of 1969, had destructive effects that extend even until today. The main part of the agreement granted freedom of action to the PLO in its activities against Israel, the freedom to conduct military training inside the camps, and the unhindered passage from the camps to the border with Israel.
However, the PLO became the sovereign leader inside the camps, and the Lebanese army and government did not enter them. Furthermore, the area of south Lebanon, “Fatahland,” became territory under PLO control.
Why did Lebanon want an agreement that diminished its sovereignty? It found it hard to stand up to the creation of the new Palestinian leadership, which had revolutionary zeal and threatened Lebanon’s stability and the delicate ethnic balance. The government sought to stop the mounting tension between the PLO and the Lebanese army. While it was emphasized in the agreements that the Lebanese government retained sovereignty over the camps, in fact, Lebanon renounced its rule. In return, strict limitations were placed on the Palestinians outside the camps. They could only be employed in basic jobs, but not in any white-collar professions. This created growing frustration among the Palestinians and led them to involvement in terror. Furthermore, there was also a vague hope among some Lebanese that maybe the Palestinian struggle in Israel would be successful, Palestine would be liberated, and they would be rid of the burden of hosting the refugees.
While the Cairo Agreement was drawn up for the camps in Lebanon, it also affected the camps in Syria. Over the years, Assad’s government did not enter the camps and relied upon Assad-supporter Ahmed Jibril, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC), and the rest of his supporters to safeguard their interests there. However, the Syrian government learned a bitter lesson after it emerged that Hamas was sowing the seeds of Palestinian opposition. PFLP-GC fighters were defecting, and the regime and its supporters were pushed out of the camp.
Rebel websites described Ahmed Jibril as a traitor and the “Ariel Sharon of the refugee camps [referring to the Sabra and Shatila camps of 1982].” A report in Al Jazeera claimed Jibril’s forces were fighting with Assad’s forces in the 2015 battles of Zabadani and Qalamoun. Opposition forces were furious with Jibril and led them to change their positions regarding the Palestinian issue in general.
Mahmoud Abbas tried to convince Assad to create an agreement for calm at the Yarmouk camp based on the Cairo agreement with Lebanon. Assad rejected this, and in any case, ISIS took control of the camp immediately afterward.
Even right after the 1948 Naqba and the establishment of refugee camps, Lebanon discriminated between Christian and Muslim refugees. For example, there were many Christians in the Mia-Mia refugee camp near Sidon. They were absorbed into a nearby Christian town, while the Muslims remained refugees at the camp. Lebanese businesses owned by Christians employed Christians, while the authorities turned a blind eye.
In an interview conducted by Palestinian TV, Christian refugees in Lebanon interviewed stated that they were the last ones remaining in the camps. In other words, most of the Christian refugees had been absorbed. Even now refugees who leave the camps are returned by force by the Lebanese authorities. The only way out is to go abroad. No one has even thought about sneaking over the border into Israel because the refugees in Lebanon have also mentally renounced the right of return.
As long as Arafat’s PLO ruled strictly over the camps, the PLO, as the self-proclaimed legitimate representative of the Palestinians, did not allow any rival group to enter. In those days, long before the age of Hizbullah, Lebanese security was relaxed because it had a partner in the management of the Palestinian problem.
Things changed all at once during the post-Arafat period, with the appearance of Hizbullah in the Lebanese arena and the Sunni reaction to this development.
Since the Lebanese security forces did not go into the camps, they became cities of refuge for the most dangerous Islamic terrorists. Waves of refugees from Syria who were absorbed in the camps only increased the threat encompassing Lebanon from the refugee camps.
Since Lebanon was not prepared to absorb the refugees within its territory, it found itself in a dilemma. If it entered the camps they would fall under the direct responsibility of the Lebanese government. This would eliminate the right of return, and the refugees would become part of Lebanon. However, if it remained outside the camps, the danger to Lebanon’s stability from the Sunni reaction to the success of the Shiites in Syria would only increase.
While the Palestinian refugee problem strained Lebanon since 1948, the Syria refugee problem only added to the distress, and Lebanese politicians related to the refugees from Syria in the same terms they used for Palestinian refugees. Lebanon’s Foreign Minister, Jubran Basil, said about the refugees who settled in Beirut that the “real fear” is of the “tawtin [settlers],” those refugees who will stay and force the original residents of Beirut to leave “because they will lose their jobs.”
Lebanon pressed the Syrian refugees to return to Syria. Immediately after Assad took control over large areas in Syria, many refugees – some 170,000 – tried to return to their home. But they immediately returned to Lebanon.
In Lebanon today, the total number of Syrian refugees is estimated at around one million. Thus, the “refugee problem” in Lebanon is no longer about Palestinian refugees, but rather Syrian refugees.
Lebanon decided not to go into the camps because in most cases, the forces of Fatah and Hamas were sufficient to deal with ISIS. In 2018, Lebanon got involved in the reconciliation process between Fatah and Hamas. To those who wondered why, the reason was that both movements strengthened their power in the camps in Lebanon against ISIS, which was then fighting a war against the Shiites. It could be said that with regard to the events mentioned in Lebanon, the Palestinians were on the side of the Shiites in the contest against the Sunnis. Joint committees were set up in the format of Mahmoud Abbas’ offer to Assad about Yarmouk, but they collapsed immediately.
However, there were also deviations from this format, such as attempts by Hamas to reach agreements with ISIS, which of course did not succeed.
This is apart from one particular case – the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon. The difference was that this camp was under the rule of a Palestinian branch of ISIS called “Fatah al-Islam.” ISIS had managed to gain a foothold in northern Lebanon, next to radical Sunni Tripoli. Through this camp, which is close to the sea, weapons were smuggled to Sunni forces fighting in Syria. The pro-Shiite Lebanese army entered the camp in 2007 and destroyed it in the same way that Assad’s army destroyed Palestinian camps inside Syria. However, this was an exception due to specific reasons, and it did not happen again in Lebanon.
Pinhas Inbari is a veteran Arab affairs correspondent who formerly reported for Israel Radio and Al Hamishmar newspaper, and currently serves as an analyst for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.