RAMALLAH, West Bank — On July 19, the Syrian armed opposition faction Nureddin Zengi Brigade slaughtered Abdullah Issa, a 12-year-old Palestinian from the Handarat camp in Aleppo, thus raising the ire of Palestinians and prompting the PLO to call for the international prosecution of the murderers.
After the crime raised questions among Palestinians about the PLO’s role when it comes to protecting Palestinian refugees in Syria, the PLO declared in its statement that it is working on providing protection for refugees while “contacting Arab and international authorities in a bid to prosecute criminals by all legal means before international courts.”
Ahmed al-Majdalani, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ envoy to Syria and member of the PLO’s Executive Committee, told Al-Monitor that one of the Syrian opposition armed groups that receive support from a country in the region — in reference to Turkey — slaughtered Issa. Majdalani denied media reports that alleged the child was Syrian and said, “The child is from a Palestinian family that we know. He is well-known by the refugees in the camp and his parents died a long time ago.”
Asked about the protection the organization seeks to provide for refugees, he said, “Since the beginning of the crisis in Syria, the PLO has sought to ensure protection and security to the Palestinians in Syria in cooperation and coordination with the Syrian government forces. It also sought to offer material relief in collaboration with international organizations such as UNRWA, [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East] and contributed to the release of many Palestinians kidnapped by opposition groups.”
The protection provided by the PLO for Palestinians in Syria is limited to political contacts with the Syrian government and some opposition groups in order to keep refugees away from the conflict. These contacts are made by Anwar Abdul-Hadi, the director of the political department of the PLO, or through PLO delegations headed by Majdalani who visited Syria on numerous occasions.
However, the PLO does not have the ability to provide direct security protection to refugees in the camps because it has no official forces there.
“There are no regular Palestinian armed forces that belong to the PLO in Syria to protect Palestinian refugees. There are forces that belong to some Palestinian factions in Syria, and most of them are close to the Syrian government, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. Therefore, we rely on our communication with the Syrian government to provide such protection for refugees as well as with those factions to coordinate the political and practical positions in order to provide security and safety for refugees.”
Asked about the Palestinian refugee camps in Syria, Majdalani said, “The Yarmouk refugee camp is still one of the most affected camps, as only 4,000 out of its 160,000 refugees remain there; some fled to Lebanon while others went to other refugee camps in Syria. Handarat camp, which witnessed the slaughter of Issa, has become practically empty as only a few hundred out of the 4,000 refugees are left there after [Syrian] armed groups took control of the camp. Some of these refugees moved to small camps such as Jaramana, Khan Dannun, Al Raml and Neirab.”
There are 12 Palestinian refugee camps in Syria, the largest of which is the Yarmouk refugee camp. Some of the refugees in these camps were forced to leave because of the fighting between Syrian armed groups that tried to take control of the camps because of their important strategic location. The Yarmouk refugee camp, which lies near Damascus, witnessed fierce fighting between the Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat al-Nusra.
The Arab League and the United Nations recognized the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and it is within its responsibility to protect Palestinian refugees in the diaspora through its Refugee Affairs Department.
Ahmad Hanoun, director general of the PLO’s Department of Refugee Affairs, told Al-Monitor, “The PLO has taken a neutral stance since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, which served as the first line of defense for the protection of the refugees in Syria.”
He said that the PLO is making daily efforts to follow up on the field developments, making necessary calls and communications through the Palestinian Embassy and the PLO’s political department in Syria, to “[ensure] the neutrality of the camps regarding the conflict in Syria.”
He added that efforts are also underway to “provide protection for the refugees and facilitate their everyday life through the opening of roads, securing safe corridors, entry of food supplies, exiting sick people, providing medicines and pushing the insurgents away from the areas near the camps. However, these efforts might not be sustainable enough given the volatile fighting situation in Syria.”
Past experiences have proved the PLO’s inability to meet the challenges faced by the refugees in camps, which was the case on April 4, 2015, when IS took control of 90% of the Yarmouk camp, causing the displacement of 156,000 refugees. Before that, in May 20, 2007, Nahr al-Bared camp in Lebanon saw fighting with the Lebanese army and militants of Fatah al-Islam, which caused the camp’s destruction and displacement of its inhabitants.
Commenting on the PLO's ability to provide protection to refugees in Syria, Khalid Jarrar, a leader in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, told Al-Monitor, “The PLO is trying to protect our people in Syria with all the available means it possesses. Will it be able to accomplish this task? Well, that’s a different question.”
She said, “There are countries that are unable to protect their citizens against terrorism, and thus protection has become the responsibility of the entire world and not only that of the PLO. What the PLO is capable of doing is to provide political security by calling upon the parties to the crisis to provide safety and protection and [ensure] neutrality of the camps."
Writer and political analyst Talal Okal told Al-Monitor that the PLO is unlikely to be able to provide protection to Palestinian refugees in Syria. “The PLO did not fulfill its role in protecting refugees in Syria, and I do not believe its decisions in this regard will be translated into actions on the ground,” he said.
“The PLO will not do more than contacting the parties to the conflict,” he added.
The internal Palestinian division and the attempts to reform the PLO based on the March 2005 Cairo Agreement has contributed to the deteriorating situation of refugees in the diaspora.
Jarrar pointed out that the Palestinian division has negatively affected the situation of refugees and the means of protection provided to them, adding that a strong united PLO would have been able to provide enhanced and comprehensive protection.
Okal said, “Everything that is happening to the refugees is due to the PLO’s failure in playing its essential role, which is to protect refugees.”
The PLO relies on its political relations with the parties to the conflict in Syria and remains toothless and unreformed internally, which would continue to hinder it from providing the necessary protection to refugees, who will remain within the range of fire as long as the conflict drags on.