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Plight of Palestinians in Syria could have implications for Israel

Palestinians protesting against the Assad regime and waving Free Syrian Army flags at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, Feb. 1, 2013. (Mahfouz Abu Turk/Flash90/JTA)
Palestinians protesting against the Assad regime and waving Free Syrian Army flags at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, Feb. 1, 2013. (Mahfouz Abu Turk/Flash90/JTA)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — It’s the latest Palestinian refugee crisis, but it has nothing to do with Israel or the West Bank — yet.

With Syria home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, the raging civil war there is destabilizing a population with nowhere to turn, and some analysts are warning it could complicate the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.

“The question is what could happen, what is the appropriate regional response,” said Aram Nerguizian, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

More than 70 percent of Syria’s Palestinians live in the Damascus area, Nerguizian noted, “within spitting distance of the Golan Heights.”

It’s not that Israel’s border there is under threat of being breached, he said, but the presence of so many internally displaced Palestinians could complicate Israel’s relations with the Palestinians and other Arab states, especially if Syria breaks up into smaller entities.

“If you have pressure to do more” for the Palestinians, “it opens up discussions about the Arab-Israeli arena and even more instability,” he said.

Officials from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency were in Washington last week campaigning for extra funds for the approximately 500,000 Palestinians under its charge in Syria. The United Nations is trying to raise $1.5 billion for Syrian relief, and $90 million has been earmarked for UNRWA, which services Palestinian refugees from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence and their descendants.

The issue already has reverberated in Israeli-Palestinian relations. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said in January that he was ready to absorb 150,000 of Syria’s Palestinians in the West Bank, but that Israel’s government insisted that each arrival renounce the “right of return” to Israel as a condition of passage. Abbas said he would not force Palestinians to renounce such a right before a final-status agreement. Israel would not comment on the offer.

Dennis Ross, a former top Middle East adviser to President Obama, said the status of the Palestinians in Syria likely would feature prominently in private discussions between Obama and Abbas when Obama visits the region this week.

“What, if anything, can we in the international community be doing to somehow safeguard those Palestinians there?” Ross said Monday at an Obama trip preview at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which he serves as a counsel. “It’s hard to imagine that that’s not going to be part of the private conversation.”

Israel already is watching Syria with great concern. One of the key questions is what would happen to Syria’s stockpile of chemical and biological weapons and anti-aircraft artillery should the Assad regime collapse. A crumbling Syrian regime could transfer the weapons to Hezbollah, or they could fall into the hands of groups among the rebels that are affiliated with al-Qaida.

For their part, Palestinians caught in the fighting may have nowhere to flee. The two natural exits, given the placement of the main refugee camps for Palestinians, are Lebanon and Jordan — countries with histories of tensions with their own Palestinian populations and resistant to accepting more.

David Schenker, formerly a Syria analyst for the Pentagon who now is a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that Palestinians in Syria before the civil war were relatively well integrated in the country — far more than in Jordan or Lebanon.

“They had it pretty good, relatively speaking, in terms of being able to work and travel freely throughout Syria,” he said — albeit not as citizens.

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, numbering about 400,000 in a population of  4.2 million, have been caught up for years in the country’s civil strife. Jordan, unlike Lebanon and Syria, has endeavored to absorb its Palestinians as citizens. But tensions linger since internecine strife in the 1970s between the country’s Bedouin and Palestinian populations.

Of the 1 million residents of Syria who have sought refuge in neighboring lands, fewer than 40,000 are Palestinian. Lebanon has allowed in about 32,000 and Jordan 4,500, according to U.N. officials.

Filippo Grandi, the commissioner general for UNRWA, estimated that most of the Palestinian population in Syria is internally displaced. He said that of 150,000 residents in Yarmouk, the country’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, perhaps 25,000 remain.

Earlier this month, a video went viral showing two alleged Palestinian government collaborators hanged in Yarmouk. Refugees from Yarmouk who have managed to get out of the country say they are subject to kidnappings and ransoms as they endeavor stay neutral.

“We hear from the government side, ‘Some Palestinians are traitors, we’ve hosted them for so long,’ and then we hear from the opposition side, ‘Palestinians are collaborators,’ ” Grandi told JTA.

Moshe Maoz, a Syria expert at Hebrew University who has advised Israeli governments on relations with Damascus, said he does not believe the Palestinian crisis in Syria would directly affect Israel. The longstanding integration of the Palestinians into Syria would stand them in good stead whatever the outcome of the unrest, Maoz said.

“It depends very much on the new government, the new regime,” he said, “but I don’t see any major change with the Palestinians overall.”