Is the war in Syria undermining the Palestinian claim to the right of return?
The fate of the Assad regime in Syria has been the main focus of media attention in recent months. Yet, another crisis has quietly developed on the sidelines of the Syrian calamity which may greatly affect the Palestinian refugees and the coveted “right of return”.
Over the past year, the Palestinians have challenged Israel by organizing mass marches of refugees to the Jewish state’s northern borders in order to breach its defenses and “return” to their homes. These attempts ended in a debacle, prompting the angry marchers, who felt betrayed by PLO organizers, to storm and set fire to the headquarters of Ahmad Jibril – one of the founders of the PLO – located in the Syrian Palestinian capital refugee camp of al-Yarmuk, situated in Damascus. The collapse of the “return marches” became the precursor of a process accelerated by the Syrian crisis, whereby the destruction of the refugee camps is leading to the dissolution of the right of return.
Reports indicate that the Yarmuk camp lies in ruins and its Palestinian inhabitants have joined the convoy of an estimated one million Syrian refugees fleeing to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, no longer concerned with forcing their way to Israel.
Al-Yarmuk’s involvement in the Syrian bloodshed and its subsequent destruction was not envisioned by either President Assad or the radical Palestinian organizations loyal to his regime. According to Palestinian sources, al-Yarmuk became a player in the Syrian civil war over a week ago when the radical “Tahrir” party, which preaches for the resurrection of the Caliphate, organized a “Caliphate event” in the camp similar to the many produced across the Muslim world including in the West Bank. The Salafists, who fill the ranks of al-Qaida in Syria, interfered to topple it. Their interference was discovered by the Shabiha, the pro-Assad thugs used by the regime to suppress the protesters with great violence, promptly got involved to quash the Salafists. The Shabiha’s appearance compelled Jibril’s loyalists to enter the internal struggle between the Assad regime and the Salafists and help the much-hated Shabiha. This, in turn, triggered many anti-Assad Palestinians to enter into the conflict, resulting in the shelling of the camp by Assad’s forces. Reports about the state of affairs in al-Yarmuk are scare, however, it is most likely that the camp has suffered the fate of all ruined neighborhoods in Damascus that were the epicenter of the insurgency brutally suppressed by Assad’s forces. An indication of the seriousness of the situation was given in a special announcement by UNRWA, which lamented the fate of the refugees and called on all parties to avoid another “displacement” of the Palestinians. http://www.unrwa.org/etemplate.php?id=1398.
While al-Yarmuk’s case appears to be the most dramatic, a similar process is taking place in refugee camps in Lebanon, especially in those that are involved in the Syrian crisis. The stability of the refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon is the number one prerequisite for the implementation of the right of return. Should the camps fall apart, there would be no launching pads from which the refugees would presumably return. Muhammad Rashid, the closest advisor and confidant of Yasser Arafat, explained and emphasized the central role of the refugee camps in a series of articles currently published on his website and intended as a rebuke against PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas. Rashid maintains that even after the conclusion of the Oslo Accords, Arafat persisted with the original revolutionary idea whose final objective was the right of return. Accordingly, he allocated budgets to keep the refugee camps intact and prepared for the eventual return. http://inlightpress.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=17184:-39-&catid=3:2011-07-04-18-39-20&Itemid=304
The Palestinians are keenly aware of the problem before them. Therefore, last weekend they inaugurated the renovation of the Lebanese Nahr al-Bared refugee camp destroyed five years ago during the internal struggle between Lebanese Army and al-Qaeda’s Fatah al-Islam. The Palestinians who feted in the camp emphasized that its renovation is necessary to accomplish the return to Palestine and celebrated the role of the camp in organizing the march on Israeli borders during the last “Nakba day.” http://www.maannews.net/arb/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=507919 Not coincidentally, all PLO organizations published similar announcements regarding the al-Yarmuk camp, stating that it was vital for the right of return and played a central role in the “Nakba day” events. http://www.maannews.net/arb/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=508016
No real renovation actually occurred at Nahr al-Bared. The inauguration was primarily intended to celebrate the removal of Lebanese army checkpoints that surrounded it. It is highly likely that the checkpoints will be swiftly reinstated since the camp serves as a security hole through which weapons are smuggled to assist the Syrian rebels. As long as the Lebanese government stands behind Assad, it will not accept a security breach of this magnitude on its soil. However, further to the destruction of al-Yarmuk, the alarmed Lebanese government apparently decided to preserve the Lebanese camps in order to keep the right of return alive.
The Syrian storm is overtaking the Palestinian issue and destroying the foundation that for many years has supported the strategy behind the right of return. The new Syrian refugee problem is overshadowing the old unresolved problem of the Palestinian refugees, who have now become a part of the Syrian mess. Will a refugee from Yarmuk be considered a Palestinian refugee, or will he become a “regular” Syrian asylum seeker?