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Refugees again, Palestinians flee Syria's war

Monday - 1/28/2013, 4:36pm  ET

In this Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013 photo, Palestinian children who fled their houses in the Yarmouk camp for Palestinian refugees in south Damascus, sitting inside a children library, at the Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp, in the southern port city of Sidon, Lebanon. The Palestinian exodus from Syria has also revived decades-old debate over the Palestine refugees' 'right of return' to their homes that are now in Israel, adding to the complexity the conflict whose sectarian and ethnic overtones have spilled over into neighboring countries raising fears of a regional war. (AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari)

BARBARA SURK
Associated Press

EIN EL-HILWEH, Lebanon (AP) -- When Syrian warplanes bombed a Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus last December, Umm Sami rounded up her three sons, shut the windows and locked the doors so they could neither hear nor heed the call to arms by rebels and pro-government gunmen fighting in the streets.

Then she told her sons they were leaving their home in the Yarmouk refugee camp in the Syrian capital for neighboring Lebanon, where they would wait out Syria's civil war.

"There will be no more martyrs for Palestine in my family," Umm Sami said, who only gave her nickname for fear of reprisals. "This war is a Syrian problem."

Now safe in Lebanon, the 45-year-old widow and her family have joined thousands of other Palestinian refugees who have found shelter in the country since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad erupted nearly two years ago. The conflict has left more than 2 million people internally displaced, and pushed 650,000 more to seek refuge abroad.

Umm Sami's resolve to keep her sons out of the fight in Syria ties into a deep-rooted sentiment among a generation of Palestinian refugees who say they are fed up with being dragged into the region's conflicts on a promise of getting their own state.

The Palestinian exodus from Syria has also revived a decades-old debate over the refugees' right of return to their homes that are now in Israel. That has added another layer of complexity to a conflict already loaded with sectarian and ethnic overtones that have spilled over into neighboring countries, raising fears of a regional war.

Palestinians living in Arab countries -- including the half-million refugees in Syria -- are descendants of the hundreds of thousands who fled or were driven from their homes in the war that followed Israel's creation in 1948. Having scattered across the Middle East since then, Palestinians consistently have found themselves in the middle of the region's conflicts.

After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam Hussein, hundreds of Palestinians were killed as the Sunni and Shiite militias fought for dominance of the country. Iraq's Shiite majority saw Saddam, who like most Palestinians was a Sunni Muslim, as a patron of the stateless Palestinians, granting them rights the dictator denied his own citizens because they were of the rival sect.

About 1,000 Palestinians fled the 2004-07 sectarian bloodshed in Baghdad, living in a refugee camp near the Syrian border before being resettled in third countries.

During Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, Palestinians played a major role, fighting alongside Muslim militiamen against Christian forces.

Umm Sami, who was born in a refugee camp in Lebanon before the war, was twice forced to flee the fighting, most notably in 1982 when her family escaped the Sabra and Chatilla camps during the notorious massacre of Palestinians there by Christian militias.

She would eventually bury her father, two brothers and her husband -- all fallen fighters -- before leaving for Syria and settling with her four sons in Yarmouk, one of nine Palestinian camps in Syria.

Her youngest son died in a traffic accident while serving in the Palestinian unit of the Syrian army just weeks before the anti-Assad revolt started in March 2011. None of her other sons joined the revolution, she said, because "they don't want to die."

Unlike in Lebanon, where Palestinians are cramped into notoriously lawless camps, banned from all but the most menial professions and barred from owning property, Palestinians in Syria are well integrated and enjoy full citizenship rights, except for the right to vote.

But when the uprising against Assad erupted in the southern province of Daraa in March 2011, some Palestinians living in a camp there joined in the peaceful protests. When the fighting spread to the northern city of Aleppo in last summer, some took up arms against the regime.

In Damascus, most stayed on the sidelines, but as the civil war reached Yarmouk late last year, a densely populated residential area just 8 kilometers (5 miles) from the heart of the capital, most residents backed the rebels. Some groups, however, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, opted to fight alongside Assad's troops.

Palestinian officials say more than 700 Palestinians have been killed in the Yarmouk fighting. Most of the camp's 150,000 inhabitants have fled, according to the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees. Some of them have found safe haven in areas of Damascus and other Syrian cities, but most have escaped to camps in Lebanon.

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