Trials and Tribulations of Palestinian Refugees in Syria & Palestine/Iran/Israel


Richard Falk | Global Justice in the 21st Century – TRANSCEND Media Service

15 Apr 2024 – This series of questions was posed by Daniel Falcone for my consideration in late Mar 2024 and published by CounterPunch on 9 Apr under the title, “The Forgotten Palestinian Refugees in Syria.” I have revised somewhat my responses, partly because of the impact of developments in April, especially the bombing of Iran’s consular facility in Damascus on 1 Apr killing 12 persons, including 7 Iranian military advisors, which led Iran to abandon its practice of retaliating for attacks by indirect responses to US/Israel assets/military bases or to entrust retaliations to Iran’s regional non-state allies in the region, including Hezbollah, the Houthis, and possibly Hamas. On this occasion, Iran deliberately retaliated on 12 Apr, firing as many as 300 drones and missiles toward Israeli targets. Most were intercepted with the help of Israel’s Western supporters (and Jordan), yet Israel has called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council and threatens to retaliate, escalating the conflict. What will happen with this Israeli effort to get the US involved in a wider war directed at achieving regime-change in Iran remains uncertain, but raising doubts about the war-prevention capabilities, and even motivations, of the US and to a lesser extent, China and Russia.


Interview with Daniel Falcone: Trials and Tribulations of Palestinian Refugees in Syria Prior to Israel’s 1 Apr Attack on the Iran Consular Building in Damascus

Daniel Falcone’s Introduction:

The Syrian Civil War was the longest and most complex geopolitical conflict to emerge out of the Arab Spring, thus creating a complicated legacy for leftist analysts to interrogate. In this interview, exclusive for CounterPunch, former United Nations special rapporteur, and international relations scholar Richard Falk, breaks down Palestine and Syria and the history and politics of that refugee crisis from the left. Often, this topic finds the center-right media attempting to focus on Syria, not in the interest of Palestinians, but to remove the attention away from US/Israeli aggression. Falk, a fierce critic of US and Israel foreign policies, highlights the complex circumstances of the Palestinians in Syria and points out how a host of domestic and foreign policies, and worldviews from the left and the right, both complicate and threaten Palestinian survival and their pursuit of liberation in the face of ongoing US-sponsored settler colonialism.

Daniel Falcone: How many Palestinians are in Syria, and how long have they been there?

Richard Falk: It is difficult to be very accurate about refugee and displacement statistics due to the prolonged internal Syrian turmoil over the course of more than a decade since 2011, and still are not fully resolved. Before the Syrian Civil War the number of Palestinian refugees registered by UNRWA in Syria was 526,744, the majority of whom came to Syria during the Nakba in 1947, fleeing especially from what was then northern Palestine, now Israel. A large proportion of the Palestinian refugees in Syria chose and were able to live outside the refugee camps, with no more than 111,000 of the more than a half million living in the nine official, and three unofficial camps, according to estimates in 2002.

Current estimates of the Syrian refugee population arrives at even smaller numbers due to the fact that many Syrians fled to neighboring countries and to Europe. It is now believed that correct current number of Syrian refugees within the borders of Syria is about 450,000. This experience of internal and external displacement of Palestinians in Syria during the civil war, exhibited the dangers of being vulnerable as a refugee in a combat zone during wartime, especially in the face of the growing enmity between the Syrian government and Palestinian refugees, greatly aggravated by their opposed alignments in the Syrian Civil War. Palestinians in Syria overwhelmingly supported the opposition to al-Assad regime in Damascus.

Daniel: What kinds of social, political, and economic devastation do Palestinians living inside Syria experience? Stephen Zunes has indicated that reliable numbers for Palestinian civilians killed by Syrian military assaults is around 4,000.

Richard: Until the civil war began in 2011 relations between the Syrian government and the Palestinian refugees seemed positive, especially as compared to the negative features of Palestinian treatment and experience in several other Arab countries, particularly Jordan (‘Black September 1970’) which encouraged the voluntary displacement of Palestinians, departing from Syria, and seeking refuge elsewhere, especially in Turkey and Western Europe. Prior to the civil war Palestinian refugees enjoyed substantially equal rights in Syria as compared to the resident population, being allowed to own property, and work in almost all sectors of the economy.

After 2011, Syrians were viewed by the Damascus government as a hostile presence in view of their overall support for the anti-government political forces, which in part reflected the Shiite-dominated Damascus political leadership in a life-and-death struggle with the Sunni-dominated opposition forces. Among other developments was violent repression by Syria of the refugee camps in Syria, most prominently the Yarmouk Camp located on the outskirts of Damascus, resulting in many Palestinian deaths, forced and voluntary displacements, and widespread hunger in the period between 2011 and 2018.

Such conditions prompted many Palestinian refugees in the 12 Syrian camps to risk the increasingly dangerous migrant journey to Europe, a situation further aggravated when Trump’s defunded UNRWA in 2018. Prior to the civil war in Syria, Palestinian refugees were much more regulated and their economic, political, and social options restricted in Lebanon, with its delicate Muslim/Christian demographic balance, and in Jordan, where the sheer numbers of Palestinian refugees were seen by the government as posing a political threat of a demographic character as further reinforce by their suspected distrust of the Hashemite monarchy.

Daniel: Is there a problem on the left in the United States in undermining the plight of Palestinians in Syria in relation to the left’s varying perspectives on the Syrian Civil War?

Richard: Yes, the hostility of the hard left to intervention against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, despite its oppressive tactics, autocratic governance, and outright atrocities seemed dogmatically based on siding with whatever political forces around the world validated their behavior by deploying anti-imperial rhetoric and slanted arguments against siding with the anti-Damascus insurgents, which were a hybrid coalition that included more humane and democratic elements than did the government, at least at the outset of the conflict. At the same time, complexities were present no matter which side was supported in the bitter civil strife due to the lack of coherence by either the government or its array of opponents.

Beyond this, at the outset of the Syrian civil strife the US and Turkey underestimated the capabilities and loyalties of Syrian armed forces, being too quick to think it would be as easy to get rid of the Assad regime as it had been for NATO in 2013 to induce anti-Qaddafi regime change in Libya. NATO also badly miscalculated the domestic effects of regime change in Libya. Instead of a successor regime friendly to the Global West, the situation in Libya deteriorated from one of autocratic stability to a condition of political chaos and civil strife among Libyan ethnic communities, in effect from autocracy to a chaotic form of anarchy.

This misleading analogy between Libya and Syria was a costly miscalculation, especially for Turkey, compounded by the emergence of some strange opportunistic alliances in the course of the internal struggle. Perhaps most notable was the mutual relations between ISIS and the anti-Damascus forces. seeming joining in a common cause the liberal opposition to Damascus with an organization previously treated by the West as a virulent form of terrorism.

On the side of the Syrian government again, for a mixture of geopolitical and ideological reasons, were Russia and Iran. The Syrian Civil War was the most complex and prolonged struggle to spiral out of the Arab Spring, and perhaps in modern times, considering the bewildering variety of actors and issues at stake internally, regionally, and globally as well as the mix between state and non-state actors and compounded by the internal antagonisms on both sides.

Daniel: What are the differences and similarities for Palestinian refugees trying to survive across the Arab world?

Richard: Responding to this tangled issue of comparative treatment of Palestine refugees throughout the Arab World is a stretch for me. Responding broadly, there is agreement that attitudes toward Palestinians refugees varied through time and from country to country, influenced recently by Israeli/US diplomacy promoting normalization of Israeli/Arab relations during the final months of the Trump Presidency in the form of the now notorious Abraham Accords. Since October 2023 the Israeli genocidal onslaught in Gaza has made Arab countries more conscious of their own identities while becoming somewhat more engaged with the  Palestinian ordeal, including reacting with varying levels of concern to what is increasingly regarded by pro-Palestinian forces as ‘a second Nakba’, in effect a brutally forced evacuation being implemented with a genocidal ferocity that far exceeds the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948— that is creating humanitarian pressures for offering shelter to Palestinians outside of Occupied Palestine, highlighted by a situation of widespread starvation and disease in Gaza, grim realities further intensified by the Western defunding of UNRWA since late January 2024 in response to a dubious all out Israeli campaign to discredit UNRWA in a supreme instance of their mastery of the dark arts of deflection.

At present, in reaction to the humanitarian emergency in Rafah, and continuing Israeli threats to launch a military attack on the small city abutting the Egyptian border which is sheltering over a million helpless Palestinians in horrifying conditions even without taking account of the acute fears arising from Israel’s threatened military attack, Egypt has so far responding in two somewhat contrary ways: 1) by deploring the forced cross-border pressures on Palestinians to leave Gaza or die if they are so stubborn as to continue resisting and, 2) by preparing for a mass Palestinian exodus from Gaza by constructing a large walled-in temporary refugee facility in the Sinai Desert, which is part of Egypt. Whether Egypt will eventually be persuaded or bribed to accept a large new influx of Palestinian refugees is uncertain at this point.

The issue posed is tragic for Palestinians in Gaza who have stayed in their homeland despite hardship and abuse since its re-occupation by Israel in 1967, enduring periodic punitive large-scale military incursions from land, air, and sea in 2008-09, 2012, 2014, and 2021, reinforced by a crippling blockade since 2007. The role of Hamas in Gaza is complicated: it reportedly won internationally monitored elections in 2007 because it resisted Israeli abuses more credibly than did the Palestinian secular alternatives, and steadily gained legitimacy among Palestinians throughout the occupied Palestinian territories because it was not tainted by collaborationism or corruption to nearly the extent of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, itself an outgrowth of the discredited Oslo diplomacy.

Since 2006 when it took over a governing role in Gaza, Hamas has been reduced to being a ‘terrorist’ entity by Israel, United States, and Germany. Its diplomacy was spurned over the years despite credibly proposing long-term ceasefires on several occasions. Israel made no secret of preferring to discourage Palestinian resistance by keeping Gazans on ‘a subsistence diet’ as supplemented by ‘mowing the lawn’ as needed, as well as using Gaza as a virtual free-fire zone to test weapons and tactics, and send a deterrence/Dahiya message to regional governments throughout the Middle East that Israel was not inhibited by law and morality when it came to dealing with its enemies, and disdained such widely accepted legal limitations on force as proportionality and discrimination (as to targets). Additionally, Israel’s presence in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is subject to the 4th Geneva Convention addressing issues of Belligerent Occupation, as well as the unanimous Security Resolutions 242  and 338, which projected an early Israel withdrawal to its 1967 borders after minor territorial adjustments.

The Syrian government’s relationship to the Palestine/Israel conflict seems contradictory in its central aspects. Syria alone among major Arab governments has been actively pro-Palestinian in its foreign policy since the 1948 War. Israel has engaged in various destabilizing moves toward Syria, most dramatically in the form of periodic air attacks at targets thought to be helping anti-Israeli forces in the region. Israel incorporated into Israel the occupied Syrian territory, known as the Golan Heights, under Israeli administrative control since the 1967 War, during the latter part of the Trump presidency. And now it has attacked the Iranian embassy compound in Damascus threatening to make the wider war a major source of intensifying conflict in the Middle East. In other words, despite its encounters with Palestinian refugees, Israel and Syria have a long history of mutual hostility, given dramatic focus from time to time by Israeli cross-border air strikes with target located in Syria.

This present engagement with Syria and Iran on one side and the Israel and the US, and most of NATO on the other side, points to a more dangerous phase in the Middle East conflict configuration that has evolved since the end of the Cold War.


Prof. Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, Chair of Global Law, Faculty of Law, at Queen Mary University London, Research Associate the Orfalea Center of Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Fellow of the Tellus Institute. He directed the project on Global Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy at UCSB and formerly served as director the North American group in the World Order Models Project. Between 2008 and 2014, Falk served as UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Occupied Palestine. His book, (Re)Imagining Humane Global Governance (2014), proposes a value-oriented assessment of world order and future trends. His most recent books are Power Shift (2016); Revisiting the Vietnam War (2017); On Nuclear Weapons: Denuclearization, Demilitarization and Disarmament (2019); and On Public Imagination: A Political & Ethical Imperative, ed. with Victor Faessel & Michael Curtin (2019). He is the author or coauthor of other books, including Religion and Humane Global Governance (2001), Explorations at the Edge of Time (1993), Revolutionaries and Functionaries (1988), The Promise of World Order (1988), Indefensible Weapons (with Robert Jay Lifton, 1983), A Study of Future Worlds (1975), and This Endangered Planet (1972). His memoir, Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim was published in March 2021 and received an award from Global Policy Institute at Loyala Marymount University as ‘the best book of 2021.’ He has been nominated frequently for the Nobel Peace Prize since 2009.

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