Caught in the middle
Increasingly, Palestinian groups in Syria are finding neutrality a difficult position to keep, especially when some are funded by Iran, Al-Assad's regional ally, writes Khaled Amayreh
Palestinians reacted angrily but helplessly to the killing last week of as many as 21 Palestinians, ostensibly at the hands of the Syrian army at the Yarmouk Refugee Camp in Damascus.
According to the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and other eyewitnesses, Bashar Al-Assad regime forces shelled the densely populated refugee camp with mortar fire around sunset Thursday, when refugees had just broken their day-long Ramadan fast.
At least two shells landed in Jauna Street in the middle of the camp, killing 21 and injuring more than 60 others.
Eyewitnesses said the second shell caused most of the casualties as refugees gathered to rescue occupants of a house hit by the first shell.
The Yarmouk camp is located not far from the Tadamun neighbourhood, where intensive fighting was taking place between regime forces and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the military arm of the Syrian revolution.
Palestinians in Syria and elsewhere, including the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas maintained strict neutrality between the regime and the opposition. However, this neutrality didn't assuage the regime's suspicions that the refugees, or many of them, had their hearts decidedly with the FSA and the opposition in general.
The fact that virtually all Palestinian refugees are Sunni Muslims reinforced these suspicions on the part of the regime, especially after some Palestinian factions, such as Hamas, more or less ended their presence in Syria.
A high-ranking Hamas official was found dead in Damascus a few weeks ago amid strong speculations that agents of the Alawite regime may have been responsible for the mysterious murder.
A few months ago, a bus carrying two dozen cadets of the Palestinian Liberation Army (the Syrian Region) were abducted and summarily executed or decapitated at the hands of the so-called Shabbiha forces working for the Al-Assad regime.
Predictably, the regime denied responsibility for the killings, insisting that "armed thugs" committed the atrocities.
However, most Palestinians in Syria and occupied Palestine don't take seriously the regime's denials, knowing that a regime that doesn't hesitate to murder, even en masse, and its own citizens will not spare the Palestinians.
The Syrian regime defends the bloody repression of the mostly-Sunni opposition, arguing that its rule is being targeted by an international conspiracy due to its supposed uncompromising stance on Israel and the United States as well as its support for the Palestinian cause and Hizbullah.
The opposition, however, accuses the regime of using the Palestinian issue as a "red herring" to keep the small and esoteric Alawite sect in power. The Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shia Islam and is considered by many Muslims as heretical.
Eager to protect Palestinian refugees in Syria, who number around 450,000, Palestinian officials repeatedly appealed to "all Syrian parties" to leave the Palestinians alone.
"Our people are guests of the Syrian people and government and take no sides in the current crisis. We therefore appeal to the warring sides in Syria to respect the neutrality of our people," said Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas.
Similar statements have also been issued by Hamas leaders, including Khaled Meshaal and Ismail Haniyeh.
Palestinian leaders and factions are worried, though, that upsetting the Syrian regime could endanger the security and safety of the refugees.
This is the argument voiced privately by Ahmed Jebril, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (General Command), who is based in the Yarmouk Refugee Camp.
The Iranian-funded group is widely detested by Palestinian refugees for siding with the repressive regime in Damascus and also for alienating the majority Sunni population who have come to view some refugees as cheap mercenaries working for the Syrian regime.
But Jebril believes that his fate is inextricably linked with that of President Al-Assad, a view angrily rejected by others within the group.
This week, his opponents urged him to leave the group and choose between loyalty to Palestine and loyalty to Bashar Al-Assad.
The choice is not easy. If Jebril abandoned Al-Assad, he could lose everything, including his own life.
Hamas has quietly scaled down its presence in Damascus, with most of the group's top leaders leaving for Qatar and Egypt.
The move gave the Islamist group more freedom to be in harmony with the general mood in the occupied territories where the Palestinian public in both the West Bank and Gaza is decidedly supportive of the revolution and vehemently opposed to the Alawite regime.
In recent months and weeks, Islamist preachers began giving sermons on the need to identify with and support the Syrian revolution.
Moreover, homilies have been given in mosques educating worshipers on the "heretical nature" of Al-Assad's Alawite sect, which has dominated the political scene in Syria for the past 45 years.
On Friday, a preacher at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem called the Syrian regime "murderous, evil and godless".
"The regime of Bashar Al-Assad is the enemy of Muslims, the enemy of humanity and the enemy of God. We pray to the Almighty to speed up victory over this criminal regime."
Another preacher in Hebron described the regime as "much worse than Israel".
"We have been living under the Israeli occupation for many years, but we haven't witnessed the kind of things we watch on TV," said the preacher, alluding to the gruesome images of death and destruction in Syria.
Similarly, Hamas's media outlets, including radio and TV, have markedly changed their tune in favour of the Syrian revolution.
Hamas is the ideological daughter of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, the ultimate anathema for the Al-Assad regime and one of the main revolutionary groups fighting to topple the regime.
The Al-Assad regime calls the Muslim Brothers Ikhwan Al-Shayatin or "the brothers of Satan" and considers them the ultimate enemy.
Given the fact that the bulk of Hamas's constituencies are conservative religious Muslims, Hamas has probably come to realise that maintaining strict neutrality between the Damascus regime and its Sunni opponents is beyond its ability. Hence, the new tone.
This is not the same with the Islamic Jihad group, which depends on Iran, Al-Assad's regional ally, for its financial survival. The relatively small group has said it is maintaining its presence in Damascus and has no plans to leave.
Nonetheless, the group is avoiding making comment on, or giving its reactions to, the Syrian crisis, likely to avoid upsetting the various sides in the situation, including the Palestinians themselves.