Palestinians and the Syrian uprising

The article below on Palestinians in the Syrian uprising is important not because I think it is necessary for Palestinians to “take a side” as such – I think the Palestinians have their own problems, have had plenty of bad experience with other Arab states, and thus have to tread carefully, with a studied policy of neutrality being in their best interests – but because it demonstrates the social reasons why in reality Palestinians have become involved one way or another in the revolt against the tyranny. Of course, as I explain elsewhere, Assad’s regime has always been anti-Palestinian, so it was hardly surprising that Hamas came out in support fo the Syrian people’s uprising; in any case, it was too obvious to Hamas that what the regime was doing to Syrian people fightinbg for freedom resembled very closely what the Zionist regime regularly does to them in Gaza. Solidarity still exists in the world. (And no, I don;t think it is just because Hamas and the Palestinians in general are Sunni; its long-term alliance with Hezbollah, and its standing of a Christian candidate in the 2006 elections, belie that as the major factor). But the simple fact of the matter is that the degree of integration of Palestinians into Syrian society, so that family and friends and workmates are people both inside and outside of the camps, mean that the struggles of the local Syrian populatin become their struggles as well.


According to one activist, the uprising marks “the first time we feel
Syrian.this intifada is about the whole of Syria, as this country is
holding both Syrians and Palestinians.” Of course, isolated interviews
with politically active refugees are not sufficient to capture the
prevailing sentiment of the Syrian refugee population as a whole. Still,
interviews such as these, along with Palestinians’ extensively
documented involvement in the uprising on the side of the opposition,
provide a compelling ethnographic account of the affective dimension of
their integration into pre-conflict Syrian society. The early legal
integration of the PRS and the concomitant rise in their socio-economic
fortunes in the proceeding years allowed certain elements of the refugee
population to identify with the domestic aspirations of their Syrian
neighbors, despite their official status as refugees and the pull of a
competing Palestinian national identity.

(Dis)integration: Palestinian Refugees in the Syrian Civil War

by Matthew Coogan

[9 December 2012. Palestinian refugee who fled from Dera’a to Jordan
with his family. In front of his grocery shop in Hiteen Refugee Camp.
Photo by Noura Erakat]

One of the most potent discourses used to describe events in Syria has
been that of social disintegration or fragmentation. The diverse
tapestry of ethnic, religious, and national identities that
characterized Syrian society is unraveling into sectarian strife and
will be difficult to reconstitute in a post-conflict environment. Of
course, such a discourse should not elide more complex and nuanced forms
of social identification and association and reduce the conflict to a
war between irreconcilable factions. Nevertheless, the conflict has
produced unique consequences for various social groups in Syria related
to their particular social, economic and political positions in
pre-conflict Syrian society. Such is the case for the approximately five
hundred thousand Palestinian refugees in Syria (PRS).

Up until 2011, the Palestinian refugees of Syria (PRS) enjoyed the
highest level of socio-economic integration of any Palestinian refugee
community outside of Jordan. They had achieved a high level of
performance on a range of socio-economic indicators, including favorable
living conditions and expansive opportunities in the domestic job
market. Moreover, the early legal integration of the PRS, in combination
with the regime’s attempted cooptation of the Palestinian nationalist
movement, afforded the PRS a distinct social and political role in
Syria, in addition to their relative economic success.

However the violence that has engulfed Syria since the advent of the
Arab Uprisings has dramatically altered the position of the country’s
Palestinians and demonstrates their acute vulnerability. Like most
Syrians, the PRS have found much of their social and economic gains
reversed as a result of the conflict. However, their status as refugees
will present unique challenges for the Palestinian refugees in Syria
that will undermine their position and re-integration in a post-conflict
Syria. The broad national conditions that once facilitated their robust
socio-economic integration into Syrian society have all but evaporated.
The deterioration of the Syria economy and the increasingly polarized
social and political climate will likely preclude the possibility that
the PRS will be reintegrated into Syrian society at pre-conflict levels.

The Legal and Socio-Economic Status of Palestinian Refugees

Following the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948,
approximately eight-hundred thousand Palestinians were forced to flee
historic Palestine and seek refuge in neighboring Arab countries. These
host states each adopted a distinctive set of policies relating to their
refugee communities, resulting in disparate legal statuses and levels of
socio-economic integration for Palestinian refugees in their various
countries of residence. The starkest contrast was between Jordan and
Lebanon. Beginning in 1949, the Jordanian government began issuing full
citizenship to all Palestinians resident in its territories, resulting
in a high level of refugee integration into the domestic and regional
job market and Palestinians’ active participation in the Jordanian
political arena. In contrast, in Lebanon, Palestinians were regarded as
foreigners and barred from participation in numerous sectors of the
economy, denied social services available to Lebanese citizens, and
excluded from the political process. Scholars have observed that these
legal barriers were deliberately instituted to “[prevent] the
socioeconomic absorption of the Palestinian refugees, lest any major
improvements in their living conditions ‘lead to resettling the
Palestinian refugees and their eventual assimilation.'”

The case of Syria represents a middle ground between the full legal
protections afforded by Jordan and the near-total marginalization in
Lebanon. While the PRS were never issued full citizenship, the Syrian
government undertook numerous measures shortly after the arrival of the
refugee population to facilitate its legal and socio-economic
integration. These measures, in combination with favorable economic and
demographic conditions in Syria at the time, laid the foundation for a
high degree of refugee socio-economic integration into Syrian society
over the long term.

Palestinian Legal and Socio-Economic Integration in Syria

Following the events of 1948, an estimated ninety to one-hundred
thousand Palestinian refugees arrived in Syria. There they received
significantly better treatment than their compatriots who fled to other
Middle Eastern countries. In January of 1949, the Syrian Government
established the Palestine Arab Refugee Institution (PARI), a state organ
responsible for administering refugee affairs, including emergency
relief, employment assistance, and processing external contributions for
refugees. [1] Following the establishment of this relief apparatus, the
government began to expand numerous civil rights to its newly arrived
constituency, culminating in the issuance of Law no. 260 in 1956, which

“Palestinians residing in Syria.are to be considered as originally
Syrian in all things covered by the law and legally valid regulations
connected with the right to employment, commerce, and national service,
while preserving their original nationality.”

This unusually hospitable reception of Palestinian refugees may be
attributable to the favorable economic conditions prevalent in Syria at
the time. The total number of Palestinians arriving in Syria in 1948
constituted only a minute percentage of the country’s total population
and thus did not represent a substantial threat to its socio-economic
balance. To the contrary, the Syrian economy was able to easily
accommodate the vast majority of refugees. Most were peasant farmers who
were able to find work in Syrian agriculture, while an educated minority
found work in specialized fields such as teaching and nursing. [1]

A number of social factors also converged to further incorporate
Palestinian refugees into Syrian society, which in turn “discourage[d]
the emergence of strong indigenous institutional expressions of a
separate Palestinian national identity.” [1]To begin, some of the
strongest transnational mechanisms for organizing the Palestinian
diaspora, namely Palestinian trade unions, were significantly
marginalized in Syria due to the high degree of economic integration and
legal parity of Palestinian refugees. Palestinians were not only
employed across all sectors of the economy, but were permitted full
membership in Syrian trade unions, where they participated not only as
general members but as high ranking officials, including presidents and
vice presidents of high profile union branches. While Palestinian trade
unions did come to Syria in the 1960’s, the prominence of Syrian unions
connected to the ruling Ba’ath party, and Palestinian workers’
successful integration into them, rendered their activities marginal and
their influence minimal.

Palestinian refugees also benefited from expansive social services
provided to them by the government, on par with services provided to
Syrian citizens. The Syrian regime established nurseries and
kindergartens to ease the burden on Palestinian women who often worked
outside the home. Most Palestinian children were educated in government
secondary schools. Although such services were not administered directly
at refugee camps, they were readily accessible to most Palestinians, the
majority of whom were able to move outside of the camps as their
economic and social fortunes climbed. This early legal and economic
integration of Syria’s Palestinian refugees formed the basis for further
socio-economic advances in the proceeding decades, and established the
refugee community as a legitimate, productive component of Syrian

Continued Integration and Socio-Economic Success

The advances made by Palestinian refugees in these early decades
continued and compounded into the twenty-first century. In 2001, the
Fafo Institute for Applied International Studies undertook a
comprehensive analysis of the living conditions of Palestinian refugees
in Syria. Fafo’s project examined a range of socio-economic indicators
and found that Palestinian refugees in Syria shared virtually identical
living conditions with their Syrian counterparts and substantially
better living conditions than refugees in other Middle Eastern
countries. Indeed, it determined that the socio-economic status of
Palestinian refugees was determined in greater part by domestic factors
that also affected Syrian citizens, rather than their status as

“Since the majority of refugees reside in urban centers, their
socio-economic and other characteristics are extensively shared with
other urban populations. The poorest and most underprivileged
Palestinian refugees are predominately found in rural settings, where
they tend to share the living conditions of Syrian nationals living in
similar surroundings.”

The study found that although the average annual income of Palestinian
refugees was significantly lower than the average Syrian annual income,
refugees in Syria had the greatest average annual income of all
Palestinian refugee populations when adjusted for purchasing power
parity. Moreover, the study found that Palestinian refugee participation
in the labor force to be on par with general labor force participation,
and that such participation was higher than that of any other refugee
population in other Middle Eastern countries. Other indicators of
refugee integration include the fact that the vast majority of
Palestinian refugees requiring medical care consult private or
government facilities as opposed to UNRWA clinics. Also, the pass rate
of refugee children on state educational exams is actually higher than
the national average.

Palestinians in the Syrian Uprising

Such was the status of Palestinian refugees in Syria at the advent of
the popular uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in early 2011.
From the beginning, Syria’s Palestinian community was a principal, if
involuntary, actor in the unfolding drama of the uprising. In the early
stages of the conflict, the Palestinian community at large attempted to
maintain neutrality, in line with a longstanding tradition of avoiding
entanglement in domestic political disputes. So potent was their initial
desire to remain uninvolved in the conflict that Palestinian protestors
torched the headquarters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of
Palestine- General Command, the Regime’s closest allied Palestinian
faction, when it sided with the government and undermined the call for

However, as time went on, ordinary Palestinians found themselves
increasingly involved as the regime attempted to scapegoat their
community as a foreign interlocutor. The proximity of Palestinian
refugee camps to the sites of initial protest in Dara’a and Latakia led
regime officials to accuse Palestinians of instigating the violence in
an attempt to downplay “indigenous” Syrian support for, and
participation in, the protests. Moreover, as the Regime assault on
Syrian dissidents intensified, many Palestinians felt compelled to aid
them. This was the case among refugees in the Dara’a refugee camp who
elected to host a field hospital in the camp for Syrians requiring
medical attention.

This level of involvement marks a break with past traditions of
Palestinian political activity in Syria. Before the uprising, such
activity was largely restricted to matters directly connected to
Palestinian liberation and the right of return. Historically,
Palestinians did not engage in Syria’s domestic politics. A report from
Al Jazeera’s research arm reveals a surprising motivations for this
shift among at least some Palestinian refugees: feelings of Syrian
political identity and obligation.

According to one activist, the uprising marks “the first time we feel
Syrian.this intifada is about the whole of Syria, as this country is
holding both Syrians and Palestinians.” Of course, isolated interviews
with politically active refugees are not sufficient to capture the
prevailing sentiment of the Syrian refugee population as a whole. Still,
interviews such as these, along with Palestinians’ extensively
documented involvement in the uprising on the side of the opposition,
provide a compelling ethnographic account of the affective dimension of
their integration into pre-conflict Syrian society. The early legal
integration of the PRS and the concomitant rise in their socio-economic
fortunes in the proceeding years allowed certain elements of the refugee
population to identify with the domestic aspirations of their Syrian
neighbors, despite their official status as refugees and the pull of a
competing Palestinian national identity.


However, the Syrian civil war has resulted in a rapid and expansive
deterioration in the material conditions of Palestinian refugees in
Syria, as it has for broad swaths of the country’s population.
Significantly however, the refugee community faces an additional threat
in a post-conflict environment that Syrian nationals do not: the
possibility of being unable to reintegrate into society at pre-conflict
levels. As Laurie Brand theorized in her study of Palestinians in Syria,
it was the Syrian economy’s capacity to absorb Palestinian refugees
without causing undue dislocations for the country’s citizens that
facilitated much of their early integration. Relatedly, she notes that
in times of poor economic performance, Syrian nationals would accuse
Palestinians of having taken Syrian jobs, and predicts that further
economic distress could accelerate this trend.

According to the Syrian Center for Policy Research, by the end of 2012,
Syrian economic losses are presumed to have eclipsed forty-eight billion
USD. This represents an economic loss equal to 81.7 percent of the
country’s 2010 GDP. For the same period, the economy is estimated to
have shed 1.5 million jobs, and the unemployment rate has surged from
10.6 percent to 34.9 percent. Such a development is ominous for the
Palestinian refugee population, which will not only find it more
difficult to obtain work in a post-conflict environment, but also faces
the possibility of discrimination and ostracism as a result of the
economic collapse. The Assad regime’s initial attempts to portray the
refugee community as a foreign instigator already indicate the
possibilities of further marginalization in a post-conflict society.

Compounding the refugees’ economic difficulties, Syria has experienced
massive inflation since the war’s inception, with a bevy of basic food
and clothing items having increased in price from 50-70 percent, while
gas and electricity prices have nearly doubled. Fafo’s report attributed
much of Syria’s refugee’s economic advantage to the relatively low price
of consumer goods in Syria, in contrast to other refugee host countries,
a condition that has now all but vanished.

Moreover, as conditions in Syria continue to deteriorate, the PRS are
increasingly dependent on international aid, particularly from the
United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the
Near East (UNRWA). The total proportion of Palestinian refugees in Syria
in need of humanitarian aid has skyrocketed. While only six percent of
refugees received aid in the form of direct goods before the uprising,
UNRWA estimated that in April of 2013 more than four-hundred thousand
refugees, more than eighty percent of the total population, require such
assistance. [2] To date, the Agency has distributed food and non-food
items to over 143,000 refugees in Syria, and is about to conclude a cash
distribution plan to provide six-thousand Syrian pounds to 420,000
refugees by the end of August. UNRWA also notes that 235,000 PRS have
become displaced, although it has been able to accommodate only about
7,300 in UNRWA shelters within Syria. Thus the Palsetinian refugees of
Syria have become reliant on the largesse of international donors to
maintain a substantially reduced standard of living, a striking contrast
to their previous economic independence and success.


The Syrian civil war has been a political and humanitarian disaster for
all of Syria’s disparate communities and confessions. The country is
currently divided between rebel-held territory and areas where the
government maintains authority, with broad swaths in between subject to
violent battles for control. Sectarian tensions have flared, and the
presence of foreign elements backing particular constituencies has
further entrenched already potent divisions in Syrian society.
Undoubtedly, reestablishing a politically and socially integrated polity
in a post-Assad era will prove an extraordinarily difficult task.
However, owing to the economic, social, and political factors described
above, the reintegration of Syria’s Palestinian refugees presents an
even more challenging dilemma. The collapse of the Syrian economy has
eliminated much of the economic advantage that Palestinians enjoyed in
comparison to other host countries, and the economy may not be able to
accommodate the proportion of refugees it did after their 1948 arrival.
And as past periods of economic decline have demonstrated, competition
from Palestinians for jobs may again result in social tension. Moreover,
the PRS are in a uniquely vulnerable position as refugees, unable to
participate in the electoral process and thus more effectively demand
official remedies to help restore their previous socio-economic
position. Regrettably, this civil war has transformed the case of
Palestinian refugees in Syria from one of the issue’s more positive
incarnations into one of its most tragic

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s