Home inFocus Can Syria Change? (Spring 2009) Syria and the Palestinian Refugee Problem

Syria and the Palestinian Refugee Problem

David Meir-Levi Spring 2009

After the 1948 Arab-Israeli war leading to Israel’s independence, approximately 750,000 Palestinians were dispersed. Roughly 80,000 fled to Syria. Since then, Syria has exploited the Palestinian refugees to prevent regional peace with Israel. With the rare exception of one Syrian leader who proposed resettling the Palestinians in May 1949 (Husni Za’im was soon deposed in a coup), Syria has for six decades refused any efforts to resettle these refugees. Instead, the regime in Damascus has perpetuated a humanitarian problem by maintaining refugee camps in both Syria and Lebanon. Moreover, the regime continues to issue their demand that more than 4 million Palestinians (the original 750,000 plus their offspring) have a “right of return” to Israeli territory, which would virtually guarantee the demographic destruction of the state of Israel.

It is often asserted that Egypt and Jordan are the Arab states that should be blamed for the refugee problem due to their occupation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, respectively, from 1948 to 1967. However, history reveals that Syria may have played an even greater role in perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem.

Syria’s Plans

In a little known footnote in history, Damascus exacerbated the Palestinian refugee problem at the onset of the 1948 war. Evidence of this is revealed in research published by Hamad Said al-Mawed of Canada’s McGill University in 1999. Dr. al-Mawed’s research, The Palestinian Refugees In Syria: Their Past, Present and Future, reveals that Syria may have transported Palestinians further away from the area of conflict, thereby making it more difficult for them to return.

According to al-Mawed, a Palestinian by birth, Syria appears to have arranged for hundreds of vehicles—trucks, busses and railcars— to transport tens of thousands of refugees from the Syrian border to the cities of Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo. Others were taken to the Iraqi border with Turkey. Some went to Iraq, far away from the areas of the refugees’ former homes in Israel.

Survivors of these forced mass migrations attest to the terrible conditions to which the Syrians subjected their Palestinian brethren.

According to one testimony, Palestinians fleeing into Syria were forcibly relocated by Syrian troops from the Hula Valley in the northern Galilee to Kafr al-Ma’e and then later to Khesfeen in the (Syrian controlled) Golan Heights.

In another testimony, a refugee states, “We arrived at the Syrian borders. The Syrian authorities expelled us to Jordan because we entered Syria illegally. Refugees had to beg for food and water. Some nearly starved.”

Another refugee recalls, “Policemen took many families to al-Hejaz railway station in Damascus. The train stopped in Jarablus near the Iraqi/Turkish borders. Possibly the aim was to settle refugees in villages there.”

Al-Mawed cannot provide an explanation for this baffling Syrian decision. He offers only a grim summary of these events, with the intent of making known what had been secret for decades.

Al-Mawed himself raises the obvious questions: “Why were refugees driven to leave to Syria? Who brought cars and camions [trucks] to scatter them here and there? Why were trains used to disperse them hundreds of miles away from the borders with Palestine?” Advance planning, significant resources, armed forces, and logistics were clearly required.

Interestingly, the McGill researcher asserts that there might never have been a refugee problem if the refugees had remained in south Lebanon. Had they remained there, and had the Arab states negotiated in good faith with Israel for their return, they could have migrated south at the cessation of the war.

Subsequent Resettlement Opportunities

In 1949, at the Palestine Conciliation Commission in Lausanne, Switzerland, Arab states demanded that Israel agree to repatriate the Arab refugees. Israel agreed to repatriate 100,000 refugees as part of a peace agreement with its neighbors. However, Syria and the Arab states rejected Israel’s offer, insisting on the settlement of all Arab refugees in Israel. This was something the Jewish state could not do, particularly if it wanted to maintain a demographic majority. Moreover, admitting a mass migration of Arabs that continued to seek the destruction of Israel would expose the nascent state to unacceptable dangers.

The alternative possibility of Syria resettling the refugees in the areas where they had been shipped (areas that were widely under-populated and in desperate need of workforce for agricultural development) was impossible after the violent overthrow of the Za’im regime in August 1949. Under Syria’s new president, Hashim al-Atassi, the Arab League position against permanent resettlement prevailed.

This is not to say that Syria did not need the assistance that Palestinian workers could have provided. In 1951, the Syrian government was in desperate need of agricultural workers. Near East Arabic Radio reported that the regime was offering land rent-free to anyone willing to settle there. According to an Egyptian newspaper, the Syrian government officially requested that half a million Egyptian agricultural laborers be permitted to work in Syria. The Egyptian authorities rejected this request on the grounds that Egyptian agriculture was also in need of labor.

Thus, the Syrian commitment to maintaining the refugees in their dire straits for political purposes was so strong that the Syrian government undermined its own economy in order to prevent the refugees from becoming contributing members of the state’s economy.

An Entrenched Position

In 1952, the United States offered Syria $400 million to resettle hundreds of thousands of refugees. Syria flatly rejected the offer. Instead, throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Syria paid lip service to Palestinian refugees by reiterating their right to return to Israel.

Rather than solve the refugee issue through a diplomatic settlement, Syria encouraged Palestinian refugees to join militias under Syrian command to “liberate their homeland.” For example, in 1964, Syrian President Amin al-Hafez permitted a militia known as the Palestine Liberation Army to stage attacks against Israel. In 1966, a group of Baathists formed a paramilitary organization called al-Sa’iqa. These groups enabled Syria to claim it supported the Palestinian cause without taking concrete steps to improve the plight of Palestinians.

In June 1967, as Syria and Egypt prepared to attack Israel, the Israelis launched a stunning pre-emptive strike, destroying the Syrian and Egyptian armies in just six days. After the war, an additional 4,000 Palestinians joined the preexisting 80,000 as refugees in Syria. These new refugees faced the same harsh treatments as those that came before them. Indeed, Damascus indicated that it had no intention of resolving the plight of its Palestinian refugees.

The Assad Era

In February 1971, Air Force Commander Hafez al-Assad became President of Syria by way of a coup. Assad maintained the Syrian position of refusing to resettle the Palestinian refugees. The ostensible purpose of this policy was to challenge the very legitimacy of the state of Israel. Indeed, an excellent study by British writers Terence Prittie and Bernard Dineen (The Double Exodus: A Study of Arab and Jewish Refugees in the Middle East) concludes that Syria regarded the destruction of Israel as more pressing than the welfare of the Palestinian refugees.

Hafez, however, may have had designs on Palestinian territory in his quest for “Greater Syria.” First promoted by the Syrian Socialist National Party in Beirut during the 1930s, the concept of Greater Syria calls for the linkage of Syria with present day Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan. Accordingly, Assad may have sought to squash Palestinian nationalism because it threatened his claim to Israeli territory.

As Professor Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin note in Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography, Assad once chided Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, “Don’t you forget… There is no Palestinian people, and there is no Palestinian entity. There is [only] Syria.”

Whether motivated by dreams of Greater Syria or not, Hafez’s policies ensured that the Palestinian refugee problem remained unsolved during his reign (1971-2000). The ranks of Palestinian refugees in Syria, as well as the Lebanese territory that Syria occupied, continued to swell.

After Hafez’s death in June 2000, his son Bashar succeeded him as president of Syria. Bashar’s treatment of Palestinian refugees has shown no signs of improvement. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), there were 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria in 2003. More than one-fifth of Palestinian refugee families live below poverty levels while 22 percent live on the poverty line.

The Lebanese Camps

As a side note, Syria occupied Lebanon for 29 years, but was pressured to leave in 2005 after being accused of sanctioning the murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Until then, Damascus had determined the policies that governed the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon. The most dangerous among them was the perpetuation of a state of anarchy.

Ein al-Hilweh, for example, is the largest of Lebanon’s twelve Palestinian refugee camps. It is often referred to as the capital of the “Palestinian Diaspora.” The camp was established in 1948 with an original population of 9,000. Today, some 45,000 refugees are registered there, but more than 75,000 people may actually live in the camp.

Lebanon’s twelve camps, now comprising more than 370,000 Palestinians, were traditionally areas where the Syrian government has permitted large quantities of weapons to enter the camps, but little else. Numerous extremist groups tied to Hamas, al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah have sprouted in these camps, and they often clash with the Lebanese military, or even amongst themselves.

When Syria withdrew its forces from Lebanon, it continued to arm the Palestinian refugees in the country’s teeming camps in an effort to destabilize the pro-Western government. As recently as May 2007, in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, more than 240 people died in intense fighting between Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese army. Lebanese officials claim that Fatah al-Islam, an al-Qaeda affiliate group, receives support from Damascus.

Refugees and Diplomacy

History reveals that Syria contributed significantly to the Arab refugee problem in 1948 and again in 1967. Its policies, as part of an overall strategy of undermining Israel, have ensured the perpetuation of Palestinian misery.

As Damascus indicates that it is now eager to engage in discussions that might lead to regional peace with Israel and normalization with the United States, its role in the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem cannot be forgotten. Indeed, the perpetuation of the Palestinian refugee problem and Syria’s repeated calls for the “right of return” are clear indications of Syria’s true intentions.

David Meir-Levi lectures on the Middle East and Israel for the Department of History at San Jose State University. He is the author of History Upside Down: The Roots of Palestinian Fascism and the Myth of Israeli Aggression (Encounter Books, 2007) and Big Lies (David Horowitz Freedom Center, 2005).