Ms. Napolitano is a doctoral candidate in political science at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHEES) and a PhD researcher at the Institut français du Proche-Orient (IFPO).
More than two years since the start of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, Iran and the Lebanese movement Hezbollah are still strategic allies of the Syrian regime. Both are providing it with financial and military support, and both are directly engaged in the armed struggle1 that the Syrian army is waging against the revolutionaries in many parts of the country. Iran and Hezbollah justify their stance as a duty to preserve the "axis of resistance and refusal"2 and defend Syria, which, because of its militant stance against Israel, they consider a victim of a Western conspiracy.
While this alliance allows the Syrian regime and its partners to exploit the Palestinian cause to gain public support, Hamas, the Palestinian "resistance" organization, has left the "axis." Eleven months after the start of the Syrian conflict, and under political pressure from many quarters, Hamas finally came out in favor of the Syrian people and broke its partnership with the regime. What explains Hamas's shifting position? And how has this positioning affected the movement's strategy in Syria and beyond? This article will pinpoint the different stages that have characterized Hamas's attitude towards the Syrian uprising and provide an overview of the repercussions of the Syrian protest in the Palestinian refugee camps,3 where the movement has built a grassroots base over the past decade.
This article is based on press articles, official Hamas statements and interviews and observations gained during fieldwork in Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp in the southern suburbs of Damascus,4 between September 2010 and May 2011. Information concerning the role of Palestinians in the Syrian revolution has been collected through interviews conducted via Skype with Palestinian activists living in Yarmouk and from social-network pages managed by Palestinian refugees in Syria.
HAMAS AND SYRIA BEFORE 2011
Hamas opened an office in Damascus as a communication channel with the "Alliance of Ten Palestinian Factions" that had been formed in 1993 to oppose the Oslo accords. It was only after the expulsion of Hamas's leaders from their Amman offices in 1999, however, that Damascus became the headquarters of the movement's external wing, which was in charge of managing its foreign policy. While for Hamas Syria was its only ally in a situation of regional isolation, for Syria the rapprochement with the movement was an opportunity to renew its influence on the Palestinian scene. After the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993, the displacement of the Palestinian political leadership inside the West Bank and Gaza Strip deprived Syria of any means of influencing Palestinian political life. Moreover, when in 2000 Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father as the Syrian head of state, the alliance with Hamas, Iran and Hezbollah represented an opportunity to gain a regional role and reaffirm his father's nationalist rhetoric, according to which Syria was the only Arab country to defend the Palestinian cause and support the resistance against Israel.
After Hamas moved its political bureau to Damascus, it was allowed by the regime to set up civil-society organizations in Palestinian refugee camps and sponsor mobilization and propaganda activities there.5 Hamas was therefore obliged to adapt its mobilization strategy to the Syrian context, limiting its religious fervor in an attempt to avoid provoking Syrian sensitivities and avoid being associated with the historical Syrian enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Because of its engagement on both the military and social levels, the movement gained in popularity among the Palestinian refugees in Syria. On the one hand, Hamas tried to assert itself as the heir to Palestinian nationalism by reviving armed action against Israel. On the other, given that the Palestinian refugees in Syria had been politically marginalized since the 1980s, the social services provided by Hamas in the camps filled the void left by the PLO factions. During the 1960s and 1970s, Fatah and the left-wing political groups, with their multiple social organizations, had been the principal providers of welfare and foremost source of income for refugees. For this reason, when the PLO left Lebanon for Tunis in 1982 and started to focus its activities on the occupied territories, the Palestinian camps entered a period of recession, exacerbated further by the economic crisis that hit Syria. Hamas's social activism in the Palestinian camps allowed it to present itself as the sole defender of refugee rights.
Hamas did not seek to integrate Palestinian refugees in Syria into its political program, however, despite its "right of return" rhetoric and the financial resources invested in social activities. Refugees have arguably been locked out of Palestinian political life since the signing of the Oslo accords. The social activities promoted by Hamas in the refugee camps have not been aimed at establishing a local membership or a new leadership cadre, as the lack of refugees from Syria among the Hamas leaders indicates. Rather, Hamas's presence in the Syrian refugee camps should be seen as a propaganda device. The local grassroots support has increased Hamas's legitimacy among its constituents inside the occupied territories. At the same time, local mobilization activities organized in the camps have allowed the movement to give voice to its rhetoric at the regional level. Representatives of the Syrian regime often participated in Hamas's public events, thereby demonstrating its support for Hamas and for Palestinians, in general.
In spite of Hamas's short history in Syria, and notwithstanding its inability or unwillingness to provide the refugees with a role in Palestinian political life, Hamas has over the past decade been able to secure a central role in the camps. It has improved the social conditions of an important section of Palestinian society; monopolized the camps' spaces through its regular public activities; and given rise to hopes that it will be able to change the balance of power in its struggle against Israel. However, the Syrian revolution and its repercussions for both Hamas's policy and living conditions in the Palestinian camps have profoundly affected the movement's strategy in Syria and its grassroots support.
THE SYRIAN REVOLUTION
When the Arab Spring started in Tunisia in 2010 and then spread to Egypt in 2011, the militant stance of Syria towards Israel led many commentators to assume it would be spared from the protest movements spreading throughout the Arab world. Bashar himself stated that Syria would not be "engulfed" by the Arab Spring. However, Syria proved not to be an exception. A protest movement started in March 2011, spreading from the town of Deraa to the majority of Syrian villages and towns, demanding the overthrow of the Assad regime. The regime's repressive response to the first protests set in motion a cycle of violence that led to the revolution's spread all over the country.6
Even before the start of the revolution, newspapers reported that Khaled Meshal, head of the Hamas Political Bureau in Damascus, had met with the Syrian president and advised him to implement reforms so as to avoid the protests that had undermined the governments of Tunisia and Egypt.7 With the exception of this meeting, Hamas adopted a "wait-and-see" attitude during this first phase of the revolution. When the Assad regime demanded that Hamas prove its loyalty, Hamas instead sought to remain neutral. Its first published statement about the Syrian uprising was vague and ambiguous. It described the events as an "internal affair" and tried to please the regime without alienating the opposition, emphasizing the role of Syria as host country for the "resistance" groups, while also underlining the legitimacy of the people's demands.8
This stance needs to be understood in the light of Hamas's delicate position in Syria. For over a decade, Syria had provided Hamas with important logistical and material support; as a guest, Hamas was expected to show its gratitude towards the authorities. At the same time, Hamas is a Palestinian political actor. Any kind of stance, whether in favor of or against the regime, would directly affect the Palestinian community in Syria. They have vivid memories of the expulsion of nearly 300,000 Palestinians from Kuwait as a result of Yasser Arafat's support for Iraq during the 1990 Gulf war. Hamas was intent to avoid repeating the PLO's mistake.
Since the start of the revolution, rumors had circulated in Arab newspapers about its effects on Hamas's policy. As early as April 2011, many Arabic and international newspapers referred to the decision of Hamas leaders to leave the country and establish their Political Bureau in Qatar instead. While the Hamas leadership denied this, the search for an alternative to Damascus had already begun.
The first evidence of Hamas's changing regional policy was the signing of the reconciliation accords with Fatah in May 2011.9 The reconciliation process was reinvigorated by Hamas's willingness to invest in key domestic-policy issues at a time when its longstanding regional strategy was in jeopardy. It was also helped along by the demonstrations in Ramallah and elsewhere on the occupied West Bank, inspired by the Arab Spring. Among other things, these protestors demanded an end to the Hamas-Fatah rift.
More proof of Hamas's changing strategy was its rapprochement with Egypt, Jordan and Qatar, which it had initiated in an attempt to find an alternative base for its leaders in case the strategic relationship with Syria were broken. Khaled Meshal's visit to Amman at the end of January 2012, years after relations with Jordan had been broken off, was the main proof of Hamas's regional efforts — even if this meeting was more a means for the Jordanian king to pacify his internal opposition than a real opening towards the Palestinian movement. The rapprochement with Egypt and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in that country allowed Hamas's leaders in Gaza more freedom of movement. The deputy head of Hamas's political bureau, Mousa Abu Marzouk, was also able to establish an office in Egypt. Qatar, already a close ally of the Palestinian movement, helped Hamas in its diplomatic campaigns and hosted a Hamas office.
In April 2011, Meshal was accused by the Syrian press of having criticized Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi for using his Friday prayers to instigate a religious conflict in Syria by encouraging the anti-regime protests among the Syrian Sunni community. These statements, which Hamas immediately denied, can be read as an attempt by the Syrian regime to punish Hamas for its neutral stance on the Syrian crisis and to pit it against one of the most important theorists of the Muslim Brotherhood, the movement's own parent organization. This episode was a part of Syria's campaign of disinformation, which involved spreading fear of sectarianism among Syrians through the media and putting up posters in public places invoking national unity in the struggle against fitna (chaos).10
The Syrian regime not only put political pressure on Hamas; it also tried to implicate it in the internal crisis. The Assad regime's militias (shabbiha) repeatedly spread rumors in the districts bordering Palestinian refugee camps claiming that Hamas partisans had participated in clamping down on the anti-regime demonstrations. In the suburb of Hajar al-Aswad, near the Yarmouk refugee camp, members of the Syrian security services were spotted wearing scarves with Hamas's symbol while suppressing protests.11 The Assad regime thus attempted to provoke rage among Syrians against the Palestinians of Yarmouk and to implicate Hamas in its campaign to divide and weaken the opposition to its rule.
The Palestinian National Movement
Hamas was not the only Palestinian actor to take an ambiguous stance on the Syrian revolution. The other factions of the Palestinian national movement12 have also been very cautious. Fatah has been banned in Syria since 1983,13 although its partisans are active unofficially. In spite of its historically hostile relationship with the Syrian regime, Fatah did not make any statement concerning the Syrian situation. The PLO condemned the partial destruction of the Palestinian camp al-Ramle al-Janoubi in Latakia by the Syrian army in August 2011. However, it took no clear stance vis-à-vis the revolution or in defense of those Palestinian refugees who fell victim to the regime's repression. It took more than 17 months from the start of the revolution for the Palestinian president, Abu Mazen, to make his first statements deploring the deaths of more than 20 Palestinian refugees in the Yarmouk camp in July 2011 and to send humanitarian aid to Syria.
The other Palestinian political actors in Syria can be divided into two groups, depending on their attitude to the revolution. The first is represented by left-wing factions such as the PFLP and DFLP,14 as well as Islamic Jihad.15 These factions initially attempted to remain neutral; their political weakness and the lack of other possible bases for their offices left them little choice.16 Nonetheless, when the demonstrations spread to the southern suburbs of Damascus and the Yarmouk refugee camp in July 2012, these organizations cooperated with Palestinians to provide humanitarian relief for displaced Syrians who found shelter in the camp.17 However, they could not, and did not, break off their relationship with the Syrian regime.
The second group of Palestinian political actors can almost be considered an extension of the Syrian security services. It consists of the PFLP-GC,18 a pro-Syrian splinter group of the PFLP, and Saiqa,19 the Palestinian branch of the Syrian Baath party. These organizations have adopted the regime's discourse and were involved in putting down protests, especially in the refugee camps, where the PFLP-GC provided its partisans with weapons to use against Palestinian protesters. However, the rising violence in the Yarmouk camp has led many leaders and members of the PFLP-GC to defect, causing significant changes in the organization. Moreover, in November 2012, after months of intense fighting inside the Yarmouk camp, the offices of the PFLP-GC were taken over by the revolutionaries.
In contrast to these political factions, Hamas is the only Palestinian actor based in Syria that is playing an important role on the Palestinian political scene. For this reason, and because of its strategic significance for the Syrian regime, it was put under more pressure than the other political groups. The Syrian authorities were not alone in demanding that Hamas take a position on the events; the Syrian opposition, particularly the Brotherhood, made the same demand. The Brotherhood understood Hamas's delicate position in Syria and its decision to remain neutral. But it severely criticized Hamas when Khaled Meshal decided to play the role of intermediary between the Arab League and the Syrian regime, after the Arab League's visit to Cairo in January 2012. The Arab League had given the Palestinian leader the task of conveying a message to the Syrian authorities aimed at improving the Arab observers' mission.20
In short, Hamas leaders in Damascus found themselves trapped between the Syrian regime, on one side, and the opposition, on the other. While Hamas did not want to lose its foremost ally, it could not remain silent in the face of the bloodshed perpetrated by the regime. Hamas also realized that after the Arab revolutions, Arab governments could no longer ignore the people's will, and that the Syrian regime's decision to clamp down on peaceful protest would inevitably bring about its collapse. For Hamas to link its destiny to the regime's, as Hezbollah had done, would have undermined its popularity, prevented any kind of relationship with a future post-Bashar Syria, and made it impossible to attract political support from the Arab countries that had taken a stance against the Syrian regime.21
The situation was complicated further when the Palestinian grass roots in the occupied territories and the diaspora began to put pressure on Hamas. In the Gaza Strip, Hamas's decision to ban demonstrations in support of the Syrian revolution bitterly disappointed the population. In Syria, its ambiguous stance was met with strong criticism from the Palestinian refugees. Hamas was accused, together with the other Palestinian factions, of not protecting Palestinians against the regime. As a result of these multiple pressures and the rising violence, Hamas gradually shifted its position from ambiguity to siding with the revolutionaries.
Hamas's Break with the Syrian Regime
Hamas's cautious initial stance helped it to prepare a "soft exit" from the Syrian crisis. When the political situation became favorable, Hamas adopted an increasingly clear stance in favor of the Syrian revolution. The first official statement to signal a change of policy appeared in late December 2011. Following several explosions in Damascus's Midan district, close to the Yarmouk camp, the official Hamas website published a statement declaring its support for the Syrian people and referring to a political exit from the crisis.22
But the real break with the Syrian regime occurred in February 2012 with the speech of Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of the Hamas-led government in Gaza, at the al-Azhar mosque in Cairo.23 After this speech, the Hamas leader officially confirmed that the movement had left Syria for Qatar, Egypt and the Gaza Strip.24
Hamas's break with Syria was followed by the death of the Hamas military leader Kamal Ghannage in the Damascus suburb of Al-Qudseia in June 2012. The circumstances of his death remain unclear, but his house was burned and his body showed signs of torture.25 No proof exists to implicate the Syrian regime in the affair, and Hamas leaders have made no accusations. Another member of Hamas military brunch, Ahmad Qounita, was found dead in Edlib's district in December 2012. Newspapers reported that he was responsible for the military formation of Syrian rebels. Hamas leaders denied the movement's involvement in this affair, affirming that Qounita left the organization before its departure from Syria.26 Those episodes have been followed by the destruction of Hamas offices in Yarmouk camp and the confiscation of its properties in the country. The hostility, following the breach in the longstanding alliance between the Syrian regime and Hamas, was confirmed by insults on Syrian national television against Khaled Meshal, described as a "traitor to the resistance" and as a "homeless resistant."27
Hamas's decision to take a stand against Syria must be understood in both a precise local and a regional context. On the Syrian side, the failed attempt to silence the revolt through violence over many months brought the regime to a deadlock and isolated it internationally. On the regional level, the legislative elections held in Tunisia in October 2011 and in Egypt between November 2011 and January 2012 confirmed the political success of Islamist movements in the region. In particular, the victory of the Brotherhood in Egypt influenced Hamas's decision to distance itself from Syria. The shifting regional configurations led Hamas to return to its "origins" and adopt a stance in line with the Brotherhood's, which supported the Syrian revolution.
Hamas's break with the Syrian regime inevitably weakened the "refusal front." Hamas attempted to salvage its relationship with Hezbollah and Iran, the most important provider of funding. But when those actors engaged on the side of the Syrian army in the struggle against the revolutionaries, many tensions arose. Hamas condemned the involvement of Hezbollah's brigades in the Syrian conflict considering it a polarizing factor in the confessional conflict in the region.28 From its side, Hezbollah threatened to expel Hamas's leaders from Dahye, the southern suburb of Beirut in which its offices are based.29 The Syrian regime, with its propaganda, raised tensions between Hamas and Hezbollah. It spread information about the participation of Hamas members in the struggle for al-Quseir, accusing the movement of training hundreds of Palestinians from Syria's border region with Lebanon and transmitting its technical expertise to Syrian rebels, teaching them how to dig tunnels under cities.30 Through this propaganda, the Assad regime indicated the power of external actors on the ground, especially that of Qatar — accused of being Hamas's agent.
A meeting occurred between leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran in July 2013 with the aim of ironing out their differences over the Syrian situation and rebuilding a relationship. Hamas's ability to consolidate its partnership with Qatar enabled the movement to be less dependent on Iran, which explains why it did not seem in a hurry to reestablish a relationship with its former allies.
PALESTINIAN CAMPS AND THE REVOLUTION
Besides the political consequences of the Syrian uprising for Hamas's regional policy and its partnership with the Syrian regime, enormous changes brought about by the Syrian protest movement have inevitably also affected micro-political life in the Palestinian refugee camps and Hamas's political role there. The Palestinians have been directly implicated in the revolution because of their participation in protest or simply because of the regime's repression. The refugee camps are, in fact, located in the poorest districts on the periphery of Syrian towns, where the revolution began and grew into a mass movement. This explains why they were early targets of Syrian repression. The Palestinians' social conditions in Syria being relatively good compared to those of refugees in other Arab countries, the main reason for their participation in the Syrian revolution is political. Relations between the Palestinian national movement and the Syrian regime have been tempestuous ever since Hafez al-Assad's reign. In particular, several episodes have shaped Palestinian memory: the Syrian army's intervention in the Lebanese civil war (1975-90), especially its actions against the Lebanese National Movement (LNM)31 and the PLO, which culminated in the massacre at Tell al-Zaatar camp (1976);32 Syrian support for Fatah al-Intifada's split from Fatah (1983); and the War of the Camps (1985-89).33 At the same time, the repercussions of the Lebanese war on Syrian territory meant that Palestinian refugees were repressed whenever they showed opposition to Syria's policy.
Indeed, the political attempts to control and manipulate the Palestinian national movement and the climate of political repression that Palestinians, like Syrians, have endured for more than 40 years have encouraged refugees to engage with the Syrian revolution in the same quest for "dignity" and "liberty." However, Palestinians were initially hesitant about taking part in the protests. This decision must be understood in light of their precarious status in Syria. Despite the comparatively favorable legal status Palestinians enjoy in Syria, they do not have Syrian nationality.34 As such, they are still considered "guests" in Syria and may thus become "foreigners" at any time. Statements by Buthaina Shaaban, Bashar al-Assad's adviser, during the first weeks of demonstrations increased Palestinians' fear of being made the "whipping boy" and held responsible for the crisis. In fact, Ms. Shaaban accused Palestinian refugees in the Deraa and Latakia camps of responsibility for the anti-regime protests and spreading chaos in those towns.35 Moreover, when Palestinians began to join the protests, the foreign minister's spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, accused them of being "impolite guests."36
Consequently, Palestinians initially chose to join the revolution individually. They participated in demonstrations outside the refugee camps, helped Syrians to organize the relief effort in the towns and districts targeted by the Syrian army, and began to disseminate information on social networks.37 Later, Palestinian mobilization became more collective. Yarmouk camp, in south Damascus, and the nearby district of Tadamon saw daily mass demonstrations supporting the revolution. The principal slogan used during these manifestations was "Palestinians and Syrians are one people!" Palestinians created local committees,38 as did Syrians, to coordinate the protests. Finally, as the result of the militarization of the uprising, Palestinian engaged in armed action within the framework of the Free Syrian Army and many other armed brigades.
Collectively speaking, Palestinians joined the revolution as a result of Syria's coercion and repression. The first attempt to manipulate Palestinians was the regime's orchestration, through the PFLP-GC, of two demonstrations in the Golan Heights in May and June 2011 to mark the 1948 (Nakba) and 1967 (Naksa) Arab-Israeli wars and subsequent refugee crises.39 On these occasions, the regime authorized Palestinians to travel to the border with Israel at Majdal Shams.40 The Golan region, which has been under Israeli occupation since 1967, has been the calmest frontier with Israel since the signing of the 1974 ceasefire accord. Through these orchestrated demonstrations, the Syrian regime wanted to demonstrate to the international community its vital importance for the security of the region.41 The regime also intended the protests to divert attention from the growing internal crisis. The Palestinians paid a heavy price for becoming pawns of the Assad regime's propaganda, with at least 23 killed by Israeli army fire.42
The Palestinian refugee camps in Deraa, Latakia, Homs, Damascus and Aleppo all suffered from repression by the Syrian army and security services. The first camp to be affected by the Syrian intervention was Deraa,43 attacked by the army more than once and partially destroyed. Then it was the turn of Al-Ramle al-Filastini camp in Latakia.44 This camp is situated in a Sunni district, where many protests had been organized. For this reason, the camp was partially destroyed in August 2011 by army bombardment. Al-Aidin camp,45 in Homs, was affected by the violent intervention in and siege of the town in February 2012. The Yarmouk camp in Damascus was first subjected to a campaign of arrests of Fatah partisans, who were accused of being responsible for the protests. In this camp, as well as in Neirab camp46 near Aleppo, many soldiers serving in the Palestinian Liberation Army were killed,47 probably because they had refused to join the Syrian army in its crackdown on the protesters. In July 2012, the situation rapidly degenerated in Yarmouk camp as a result of a demonstration during which at least 10 Palestinians were killed by the security services. The following day, a huge demonstration was organized in the camp for the funeral procession. Thousands of protesters participated, enraging the regime, which soon afterward launched its first armed operation in the camp and in all the southern districts of Damascus.
This brief overview of Palestinian involvement in the Syrian revolution indicates the enormous impact that the revolt has had on Palestinian refugee camps in Syria. It was inevitable that Palestinian political life would be affected. For Palestinians, the Syrian revolution represented not only an opportunity to show their solidarity with Syrians in their struggle to topple the political regime, but also a chance to affirm publicly the refugees' discontent with their own political leadership.
A Palestinian Protest
The political engagement of Palestinian refugees in Syria, like that of other diaspora populations, must be understood in the light of their dual affiliation to both the host country and their homeland. The second and third generations of refugees, who have been particularly active in the Syrian revolution, were born and grew up in Syria. They are personally concerned with the events in Syria, but they also have another national identity and interpret current events in the light of their political cause. This explains why Palestinian refugees hoped that the success of the revolution would advance the Palestinian cause and at the same time allow them to denounce their leadership.48
The first evidence of the refugees' discontent with the policy of the Palestinian factions was the protests that took place after the Naksa commemoration in June 2011. Following the deaths of many youths on the Golan Heights, a funeral procession was organized in the Yarmouk camp. This procession turned into a demonstration of the refugees' fury against the Syrian regime and the regime's Palestinian stalwarts, the PFLP-GC. Protesters chanted slogans accusing Syria of manipulating Palestinians ("The people want the fall of the profiteer!") and not reacting to the Israeli violation of its national territory ("Where is the Syrian army?"). The PFLP-GC was accused of manipulating Palestinians in the interest of the regime and of sending them to be killed. The protests culminated in the setting on fire of the PFLP-CG's office in Yarmouk. The subsequent clashes between refugees and PFLP-GC guards resulted in the deaths of at least three people.
While the protests organized after the Naksa commemoration directly concerned the PFLP-GC, the other political groups have also been affected. The most frequently chanted slogan — "People want the fall of the factions!" — provides an insight into the protesters' mindset. When Maher al-Taher, leader of the PFLP, tried to give a speech during the funeral of the Palestinian victims, the audience threw stones at him. At the same time, both Fatah and Hamas tried to profit from the situation by presenting the Palestinian "martyrs" as partisans of their organizations. However, the refugees responded by putting up posters on the camp wall stating that the dead were not affiliated with either organization.49
The Palestinian factions have been severely criticized because of their inability to protect the refugee camps from the regime's crackdown. In reply to the factions' call to stay out of current events in Syria, Palestinian youths who were active in the camps' local committees published a statement on social networks affirming that the Palestinian factions did not represent them and declared their support for the Syrian revolution.50 The Palestinian factions have been held responsible for the deaths of refugees through Syrian army repression.51
Hamas's break with the Syrian regime was supported by the refugees, but the movement's initial softness on the regime's deadly attacks on the Palestinian camps has undermined its credibility. Therefore, Hamas's members and partisans have recently been engaged in the armed struggle in Yarmouk camp, where they have formed an armed brigade. The movement did not officially confirm its involvement in the armed action, but the engagement of its partisans on the ground allowed Hamas to restore a better reputation52 comparing to the other Palestinian factions accused of passivity. This does not mean that Hamas will be able in the future to restore its grassroots base in the refugee camps. During the Syrian revolution, Palestinian refugees gave voice to their disappointment with both the PLO and Hamas. Indeed, it will be difficult for these actors to again play a role in the camps' political life without taking into account refugee aspirations.
The fate of Syria remains uncertain. The brutal war that the regime has been waging against its people will leave the country ravaged and its society shattered. Even if the post-revolutionary period sees the emergence of new political forces, established political parties such as the Brotherhood are expected to play an important role in any future government. This will probably benefit Hamas, as it can more easily restore its former relations with the country and facilitate the return of its leadership to Damascus if the movement so wishes. But the movement will not enjoy the same material help that it did during Bashar al-Assad's reign. In the post-revolutionary period, priority will be given to rebuilding the country, relegating regional policy to a secondary concern. However, considering that Hamas was the only Palestinian faction to take a stand in favor of the revolution, albeit somewhat belatedly, its chances of being favored by future authorities are better than those of other Palestinian actors.
Hamas's grassroots support in the Palestinian refugee camps will probably not be restored. The democratization of Syria will give Palestinians more political liberty, allowing them to organize around new political forces that better embody their expectations than the current leadership. Moreover, the refugees' feeling of being abandoned during the revolution — when no Palestinian faction took the initiative to protect them or even react to the regime's violations of the camps through diplomatic intervention or by providing humanitarian relief to Palestinian refugees in Syria and to those who have been forced to leave the country — has deepened the rift between the refugees and their political representatives.53 The image of thousands of Palestinians fleeing the Yarmouk camp54 in July 2012 inevitably evoked memories of the Nakba, accentuating the refugees' feeling of abandonment by their political leadership.
1 Hezbollah provided its help to the Syrian army during the struggle of Al-Quseir, a border city with Lebanon, where the regime was able to impose its control on rebels in June 2013. The Lebanese movement is militarily engaged in Aleppo and the Damascus suburbs, where many Iranian military groups are also participating in the repression of rebels by the Syrian regime.
2 An alliance formed by Syria, Iran, the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas. It is based on opposition to common enemies (Israel, the Western countries and the pro-Western Arab regimes) and was conceived as a political partnership that remained ideologically fluid and imposed no constraint on its members. See Erik Mohns and André Bank, "Syrian Revolt Fallout: End of Resistance Axis?" Middle East Policy 19, no. 3 (2012): 25-35.
3 According to statistics published by United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the number of Palestinians in Syria was 528,700 in December 2012. The majority of them are descendents of those who arrived in the country as a result of the war of 1948, which led to the creation of the state of Israel on the historical land of Palestine, provoking the exodus of thousands of refugees into neighboring countries. Another migration wave occurred after the war of June 1967 and the occupation by the Israeli army of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Finally, many Palestinians arrived in Syria as a consequence of the "Black September" of 1970, the Gulf War of 1990 and, more recently, the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. In all, Syria hosts 13 camps, of which nine are officially recognized by UNRWA and three are considered to be "unofficial" because they were built on the initiative of the Syrian authorities.
4 Yarmouk was created between 1954 and 1957. With nearly 148,500 refugees, it is currently the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria. See the UNRWA website: http://www.unrwa.org/etemplate.php?id=156.
5 Hamas has created many civil society organizations, which target different social categories, including a student organization, a women's center, a charity, a sports club and a right-of-return committee. Before the Syrian revolution began, Hamas was the only Palestinian actor organizing public activities in the refugee camps. The principal public activities were festivals for national celebrations, street demonstrations in solidarity with the occupied territories, and mass weddings (through which the movement helped young couples to celebrate their wedding).
6 The revolutionary mobilization started in Syria's small towns and their districts, home to the poorest and most marginalized segments of Syrian society. In the first year, Damascus and Aleppo, the two principal economic and political centers, saw many demonstrations. But because of the large presence of the security forces in these towns, the revolution took longer to assert itself. It was not until the summer of 2012 that Damascus and Aleppo became the twin hot-spots of the revolution.
7 "Meshaal Avoids Meeting with Assad before Leaving Damascus," al-Jazeera, February 19, 2012 (in Arabic), www.aljazeera.net/news/pages/ab318b39-612f-4700-bb4d-6aefc374fc14.
8 Part of the statement reads: "The Syrian authorities and the Syrian people have supported the Palestinian resistance and Palestinian rights, hosted Palestinian resistance groups, especially Hamas, and helped them in the most difficult of situations." And it continues: "What is happening in Syria is an internal affair. But by virtue of our principles, we respect the will of Arab and Islamic people. We hope that the current situation will be resolved by the people's quests and hopes being realized, thus preserving the stability of Syria and its role as the country of resistance." The statement ended with the following declaration: "Hamas supports the Syrian authorities and the Syrian people." Statement published on Hamas's official website, April 2, 2011. Currently available on http://twitmail.com/email/249759057/9/.
9 These accords attempted to end the conflict between Fatah and Hamas that began in 2006. After Hamas's victory in the legislative elections of January 2006, which was never officially recognized by the Palestinian Authority, major clashes started between the two movements in Gaza, ending with Hamas seizing power in the Gaza Strip.
10 Fieldwork in Damascus, May 2011.
11 Fieldwork in Damascus, May 2011.
12 Palestinian political groups that are members of the PLO.
13 In 1983, after an internal split in Fatah, the secessionist faction, Fatah al-Intifada, was supported by Syria, which banned Arafat loyalists from its territory and gave the movement's offices and civil institutions to the secessionists. In April 2013, the regime announced that it would return Fatah's properties to Mahmoud Abbas, a political choice made after the death of Abou Mousa, the principal leader of Fatah al-Intifada.
14 The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) was established in 1967 by George Habash following the collapse of the Arab Nationalist Movement. In 1969, Nayef Hawatmeh split from the PFLP and established the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP).
15 Islamic Jihad was founded in the Gaza Strip in 1980 by Fatih al-Shiqaqi.
16 Recently, several newspapers have reported that Islamic Jihad has left Syria. However, this has not been confirmed by the movement's leaders.
17 Before the violence spread all over Syria, Palestinian camps played a central role in providing humanitarian relief to Syrian people. Palestinian camps become shelters for Syrians fleeing the areas affected by Syrian army attacks.
18 The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine–General Command (PFLP-GC) was founded in 1968 as a splinter group from the PFLP, headed by a former captain in the Syrian Army, Ahmed Jibril. This organization is the main Palestinian ally of the Syrian regime. Through it, the regime attempted to divide the Palestinian political field and counter the policies of Yasser Arafat, a long-standing enemy of Jibril.
19 Saiqa was founded by Salah Jadid, a Baath leader, in 1963.
20 "Al-'Arabi Gave Mechal a Letter for Syria," Al-Jazeera, January 6, 2012 (in Arabic), http://www.aljazeera.net/news/pages/b5b9ee5a-deb2-46cc-803c-3ac1f881c5ec.
21 International Crisis Group, "Light at the End of Their Tunnels? Hamas and the Arab Uprisings," Middle East Report no. 129 (2012).
22 Statement published on Hamas's official website, December 28, 2011. http://www.hamasinfo.net/ar/default.aspx?xyz=U6Qq7k%2BcOd87MDI46m9rUxJEpMO%2Bi1s76xaptrjrocnsfRYW/fYMAskpXWuhA3XZcjwpcgziupgR8eCSnFxRiVvYZv%2BvWyfy7XwNQnMg%2BakeJ8wrrbzxJSvDneIT8Ix3/ZLq61nEMiI%3D.
23 The Palestinian leader said: "I salute the Syrian people who seek freedom, democracy and reform." "In Break, Hamas Supports Syrian Opposition," New York Times, February 24, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/25/world/middleeast/hamas-leader-supports-syrian-opposition.html.
24 "Haniyeh Officially Announces That Hamas's Leaders Have Left the Syrian Capital Damascus," Al-Sharq, February 12, 2012 (in Arabic), http://www.alsharq.net.sa/2012/02/12/121138.
25 "A Hamas Military Leader Assassinated in Syria and Israel Says: He Is Not Innocent," BBC, June 28, 2012 (in Arabic), http://www.bbc.co.uk/arabic/middleeast/2012/06/120628_syria_hamas_killing.shtml.
26 "A Leader of Al-Qassam Brigades Assassinated in the Syrian Struggle," Sky News, December 26, 2012 (in Arabic) http://www.skynewsarabia.com/web/article/62034.
27 "Hamas Deplores the Syrian Television Critics," al-Jazeera, October 3, 2012 (in Arabic), http://www.aljazeera.net/news/pages/5564f2f9-6803-4ca3-a64e-48fd8b8ea0a7.
28 "Hamas Asks Hezbollah to Withdraw Its Fighters from Syria," Reuters, June 17, 2013 (in Arabic), http://ara.reuters.com/article/topNews/idARACAE9B2UN920130617.
29 "Hezbollah Is Planning to Expel Definitively Hamas from Beirut," June 24, 2013 (in Arabic), http://www.ahram.org.eg/News/860/2/217111.
30 "Palestinian Brigades Train to Fight Hezbollah in Syria," Dounia News, (in Arabic) http://www.donianews.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3….
31 Coalition of left Lebanese parties formed during the civil war and headed by Kamal Jumblatt.
32 Tell al-Zaatar, a camp located in the eastern part of Beirut, was home to nearly 50,000 Palestinians. During the Lebanese civil war, Christian militias decided to homogenize space and forcibly displace non-Christians. The camp was under siege for 50 days, with thousands of casualties. Syria was accused of having participated in this massacre of Palestinians or at least of having failed to intervene in the Christian militias' plan.
33 The "War of the Camps" refers to the conflict that pitted the Lebanese Shia movement Amal against the PLO in the refugee camps around Beirut, Sidon and Tyre. With the support of Syria, Amal wanted to prevent the PLO from returning to southern Lebanon after its expulsion in 1982.
34 According to Law No. 260, enacted in 1956, Palestinians in Syria enjoy the same rights as Syrians in the areas of education, work and military service, but keep their nationality.
35 "Buthayina Sha'aban: Palestinians Spread the Chaos in Latakie," al-Watan News, March 27, 2011 (in Arabic), http://www.watnnews.net/NewsDetails.aspx?PageID=3&NewsID=23687.
36 "Jihad Makdissi: Palestinians in Syria Are Impolite Guests," al-Ayyam, July 15, 2012 (in Arabic), http://www.ayyam.org/arabic/?p=14114.
37 Interview with Hossam, a Palestinian resident of Yarmouk, 39 years old, via Skype in February 2012.
38 Many months after the Syrian revolution started, local committees (ligan) were set up by groups of activists in all Syrian towns and districts. Palestinians have created their own committees, which, like the Syrian ones, coordinate demonstrations, disseminate information and organize relief efforts.
39Nakba is the Arabic word for "catastrophe." This term has been used since the 1950s to describe the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 on the territory of historical Palestine and the exodus of thousands of Palestinians to the neighboring Arab countries. Naksa is an Arabic term meaning "relapse" and refers to Israel's victory in the Six-Day War of June 1967.
40 The Golan Heights cannot be visited without authorization from the Syrian authorities.
41 Rami Makhlouf, an important Syrian businessman and cousin of the president, claimed that if there was no stability in Syria, "there is no way there will be stability in Israel." See "Syrian Elite to Fight Protests to 'the End,'" New York Times, May 10, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/11/world/middleeast/11makhlouf.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.
42 "Israeli Troops, Palestinian Protesters Clash at Golan Heights Frontier," Washington Post, June 5, 2011. http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2011-06-05/world/35266386_1_yoav-mordechai-majdal-shams-palestinian-protesters.
43 The camp in Deraa city was built in 1950-1951. It currently hosts 10,500 Palestinians. See the UNRWA website: http://www.unrwa.org/etemplate.php?id=145.
44 Built in 1955, the camp of Al-al-Ramle al-Filastini hosts more than 10,000 Palestinians according to statistics published by UNRWA in 2010. See the UNRWA website: http://www.unrwa.org/etemplate.php?id=152.
45 Built in 1949, al-Aidin camp is home to nearly 22,000 Palestinians. See the UNRWA website: http://www.unrwa.org/etemplate.php?id=148.
46 Built between 1948 and 1950, Neirab camp is home to nearly 20,500 Palestinians, according to statistics released by UNRWA in 2010. See the UNRWA website: http://www.unrwa.org/etemplate.php?id=153.
47 Palestinian army branch, currently under the control of the Syrian authorities.
48 Valentina Napolitano, "La mobilisation des réfugiés palestiniens dans le sillage de la 'révolution' syrienne: s'engager sous contrainte" (The mobilisation of Palestinian refugees in the Syrian 'revolution': engaging under duress), Cultures et Conflits, no. 87 (2012/2013): 119-137.
49 Phone conversation with a Yarmouk inhabitant, May 2011.
50 Statement signed by a group of Palestinian popular committees and published on the Facebook page for Yarmouk Camp (in Arabic).
51 The statement continued: "The factions which signed the statement, including Hamas which did not, are responsible for all the victims who died in the Palestinian camps as the result of the Syrian regime's crackdown." Statement published on the Yarmouk Committee's Facebook page, July 2012.
52 Phone conversation with a Yarmouk inhabitant, June 2013.
53 Majid Kyiali, "Palestinan Refugees Have No Representatives," al-Hayat, April 16, 2013 (in Arabic), http://alhayat.com/OpinionsDetails/503614.
54 According to UNRWA, more than 40,000 Palestinians fled Syria for Lebanon and Jordan, and more than 200,000 are internally displaced. See the UNRWA website http://www.unrwa.org/etemplate.php?id=1732.
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