Inside the Middle East: Palestinians in Syria lose respect for Hezbollah


Inside the Middle East: Palestinians in Syria lose respect for Hezbollah

Beirut, Lebanon—Chain smoking next to his living room window in Beirut’s Shatila refugee camp, Khaled recalled the beginning of Syria’s uprising.  A 21-year-old Palestinian from Yarmouk, a refugee camp established in 1948 to house Palestinians who fled their homes during the Arab-Israel war, he says his father physically restrained him from participating in demonstrations against the regime.

“He locked me in the house,” Khaled told The Media Line while stroking his short beard and curly mustache. “He told me that Palestinians are guests in Syria and that this isn’t our struggle.”Protests continued unabated for months. And as regime repression of the rebels intensified, the uprising soon became weaponized. On July 29, 2011, defectors from the Syrian National Army mobilized to protect demonstrators under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Since Palestinians received more rights in Syria than any other Arab country — by way of a law enacted in 1957 before the rise of the Baathist regime –most wanted to maintain neutrality as the conflict unfolded. But after the regime of President Bashar Assad bombed Yarmouk on December 16, 2012, opposition and al-Qaida-linked groups seized the opportunity to enter the camp.

Yarmouk was now militarized and civilian casualties mounted. But while Khaled’s friends joined the rebel ranks, he left behind the only home he knew. That December, he fled with his family to Shatila, a Palestinian enclave in south Beirut controlled by the Shi’ite Hezbollah (Party of God) movement. In mid-2012, Hezbollah entered Syria, ostensibly to safeguard a regime that was vital in supporting its operations in the region. Once thought of as the ‘axis of resistance’ against Israel, their intervention, coupled with their ally’s brutal siege on Yarmouk, has damaged the movement’s popularity among Palestinians from Syria.

Abu Ameen, a 40-year-old Palestinian who also escaped from Syria in December 2012, says that though he’s openly pledged support to Hezbollah, he’s merely done so to avoid confrontation under their governance. “We are afraid to talk about them here,” whispered Abu Ameen, while cleaning his eye glasses in a small bedroom in Shatila. “Many of us don’t trust Hezbollah anymore.”

In August 2013, tensions between Hezbollah and Palestinians surfaced in Lebanon after the group shot and killed a man who refused to stop at a checkpoint in the Palestinian enclave of Burj Al-Burajneh. The incident took place just days after a car bomb killed 30 civilians in a predominantly Shi’ite-populated area nearby. The bombing was part of a larger sequence of attacks that year in retaliation to Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria.

Sahar Atrache, a senior analyst for International Crisis Group (ICG) in Lebanon, says that Hezbollah’s intervention transformed their image and antagonized previous supporters. By branding anyone fighting the Syrian regime as ‘Sunni extremists,’ the group justified its involvement through a dogmatic rhetoric.

“The group is no longer widely considered the axis of resistance, even if they claim to be,” said Atrache. Those close to the group insist otherwise. Historically framing their movement as a struggle against oppression, Hezbollah’s declining popularity among Palestinians is of symbolic importance.  Heba, a journalist for a pro-Hezbollah Lebanese newspaper, says Palestinians who no longer support the movement are compromising the ‘resistance’ against Israeli occupation.

“They are traitors,” Heba told The Media Line. “We supported their struggle against Israel for 30 years, but now many have turned against us.” “Hezbollah is supporting a regime that’s starving our people,” said Khaled, as he turned towards the window to stare at Shatila’s garbage-ridden streets beneath him. Yarmouk has become the latest icon in the history of Palestinian suffering. The regime’s total siege has starved nearly 250 people to death. And though more than 18,000 Palestinians remain trapped in crumbled buildings without water and electricity, the crisis has received little coverage in pro-Hezbollah media outlets.

The arrival of Sunni hardline fighters in the middle of 2013 further complemented Hezbollah’s effort in discrediting the popular uprising. Promoting their intervention as a fight to protect minorities, the movement’s rhetoric has intensified sectarian divisions and exaggerated Israeli’s presence in the conflict. Although Israel has provided medical assistance to rebels and civilians in the Golan Heights, Hezbollah-affiliated channels have accused them of militarily backing jihadists in Syria. While Hezbollah’s most devoted supporters have absorbed this narrative, others have questioned the truth of these reports.

Raed, a former television presenter for the pro-Hezbollah channel ‘Etejah’ (Direction), says such claims never had any basis. “Hezbollah’s narrative is that the ISIS project is benefiting Israel but nobody in the news room received any indication that this was true,” Raed told TML. “They are lying,” whispered Abu Ameen. “Hezbollah is fighting in the name of Palestine but they don’t care about us.”

Deepening sectarian rifts have diverted Hezbollah’s attention from Israel to Syria. Their interference has prevented the fall of Damascus and redefined its image. By helping the regime crush the Syrian rebellion and using sectarian rhetoric, the movement has alienated themselves from the very people for whom it purports to fight. Unable to ignore the brutality imposed on Yarmouk, many Palestinians from Syria have lost faith in the ‘axis of resistance’ they once supported. “I respected Hezbollah before the war,” said Khaled, while crushing the stub of his cigarette in his ashtray.  “Now I realize they’re just a movement for Shi’ites.”

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