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Palestinians Fear Losing Out in Israel-Syria Deal

Palestinian refugees living in Syria fear their interests might be sacrificed if Damascus concludes a peace deal with Israel.

The indirect talks between the two states have left refugees worried that under the terms of a comprehensive agreement, their demand to return to their old homes would be quietly shelved and they would instead be settled permanently in Syria,

The talks, mediated by Turkey, began in May but were suspended in September pending the formation of a new Israeli government.

An international conference in Damascus on November 23 and 24 brought together 4,500 representatives from 45 countries to highlight what the Palestinian diaspora regards as its inalienable right to return to its ancestral lands.

“If peace is established between Syria and Israel, there will be no return to Palestine for the Palestinians,” said Munir Shafiq, a Jordan-based Palestinian analyst, who attended the conference.

“Permanent settlement of Palestinians in the host countries to which they have moved is one of the conditions that Israel has set out in the negotiations.”

The right of return of the Palestinians has been a major bone of contention whenever Israeli-Arab peace negotiations have taken place.

Israeli officials have repeatedly stated that they will not accept the reintegration of Palestinians or restoration of the lands they fled in 1948.

Ahmad Ibrahim, a 40-year-old Palestinian teacher at a school in Damascus, predicts that his people will be “the first losers” in a peace agreement.

“The refugees will not return to their land, and the suffering of the Palestinians will continue because there will be no Arab voice to stop it,” he said.

Palestinians in Syria worry that if Damascus concludes a peace pact, it will end support for groups like Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, regarded as resistance movements by many Arabs but branded terrorists by Israel and the west.

Syria has cultivated strong ties with these groups, and it hosts a number of exiled Palestinian figures and allows them to maintain offices there. Syria’s support for groups like Hamas is one of the reasons why the US State Department includes it on its list of states that sponsor terrorism.

Observers believe that in return for the Golan Heights, a water-rich area occupied by Israel since 1967, Damascus would be willing to shut down the offices of these groups and end political support for their leaders – one of Israel’s conditions for peace.

“Syria understands that it cannot regain land through direct wars. Therefore, by supporting Hamas, Syria wages a convenient proxy war against Israel as a way to force it to withdraw from the Golan,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut.

“It is conceivable to see the Syrians divorcing with Hamas to achieve an agreement with Israel.”

Analysts say Syria is serious about recovering the Golan Heights through a peace deal.

“Regaining the Golan Heights will help reduce the problem of scarce water resources in Syria, and improve the agricultural sector which constitutes the basis of its food security,” said a Palestinian researcher based in Damascus, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Syrian authorities also have an incentive to make peace because that would help improve economic and political relationships with the United States and other western states. Damascus expects a “flow of western investments” in return for peace, the researcher said.

Both Hamas and officials in Syria insist that their relationship remains rock solid, irrespective of any political change in the region, and have denied media reports that Damascus has imposed restrictions on the group.

Earlier this year, the head of Hamas’s political bureau, Khaled Mishal, who lives in Damascus, expressed concern at the progress of Syrian-Israeli contacts.

The pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Alawsat said that during a trip to Iran, Mishal said Hamas had received assurances that a Syrian-Israeli peace deal would “not be at the expense of Damascus's relations with its revolutionary allies”.

Nevertheless, Mishal was clearly concerned about the implications of a deal, saying, “Peace has its own obligations and Syria cannot sign a peace treaty with Israel, exchange ambassadors with Tel Aviv, end the state of war, and turn the Golan into a demilitarised zone and an island of stability and joint security with Israel, and at the same time allow… training of Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters, and transfer funds to Hamas and other groups through its banks.”

Not all Palestinians believe the Syrian-Israeli negotiations will harm their cause.

According to Salem, from the Carnegie Centre, many members of Fatah, the more moderate opponents of Hamas, realise that they cannot negotiate with Israel until the Syrians have made peace.

“Syria is powerful enough to obstruct a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Damascus can make life difficult for both the Palestinians and Israel if it doesn’t get what it wants,” said Salem.

Syria is home to just over 450,000 Palestinian refugees, according to recent data from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA. The country has ten officially-designated refugee camps, mostly scattered around the capital..

Many Palestinians have, however, integrated successfully into Syrian society. Since the 1950s, they have had access to education and healthcare, as well as the right to own property.

There are many examples of eminent Palestinian businessmen, like Othman al-Aidi, owner of the prestigious Sham Palace hotel in Damascus, and Ziad al-Assadi, who owns the major private hospital in the capital.

Most of the refugees are now second- or third-generation, and many of them are pessimistic that they will ever see the land of their parents or grandparents.

Muhammed Rano, 50, a Palestinian doctor working in Damascus, said he wanted to stay in Syria.

“I’m fed up with dreams. Israel is a reality and returning a fiction,” he said.

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

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