In the last two years, Syria has become so dangerous for its citizens that the war-stricken Gaza Strip is now a safer country for some Syrian nationals. At least 500 people – mostly ancestral Palestinians – have now fled from Syria to the Gaza Strip. It is a refugee number that is expected to rise slowly until the conflict between the Syrian government and armed rebels dies down.
This unique situation, where Palestinians are fleeing back to Palestine, is a good chance for Gaza to show the Middle East and the world at large how Palestinian refugees should be treated. Most other countries in the Middle East – with the notable exception of Jordan – have often turned Palestinian refugees into a marginalized minority in their respective societies. Providing the relatively small number of refugees coming from Syria with food, medical care, housing, and education would set a more humane example for taking in Palestinian refugees.
Unfortunately, the Hamas-controlled Gaza government is reportedly doing little to help the refugees from Syria. Hamas officials are deflecting criticism by claiming that the refugees should be the responsibility of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, but while UNRWA is providing what it can in the form of education, housing, and food, it needs more money from donors for the assistance to continue beyond an initial two-month period.
Most of the families fleeing to Gaza have past ties to the Palestinian territory. Many of them have ancestors from only a few generations ago that left their homes in Palestine to move to Syria. But as the number of deaths increase due to the conflict in Syria, many feel that they must move back to their ancestral home for the safety of themselves and their families.
The two-year-old Syrian conflict has left nearly 70,000 people dead, including 1,000 Palestinians living in Syria. An estimated 85% of the Palestinian refugees who had fled war-torn Palestine to live in the Syrian Yarmouk refugee camp the center of Damascus, have again been displaced from their homes due to violence. Most of them have fled to The United Nations Relief and Works Agency facilities in Syria or other Middle Eastern countries.
Syrian refugees heading to Gaza face an infrastructure that is ill-equipped to take on more residents. All but one border in Gaza is heavily guarded by Israeli forces and it is very difficult for the 1.7 million people residing in the 139-square-mile strip of land to receive sufficient food and material supplies. Lack of jobs and housing also present a serious problem for refugees moving to a Palestinian territory that already has a 30% rate of unemployment.
While it would admittedly be very difficult for Gaza to accommodate a growing number Palestinians returning to Gaza, the choice by Hamas to refuse aid to refugees shows a stunning lack of connection between these Syrian refugees and the 5,000,000 Palestinian refugees living outside of Palestine.
Even with the lack of assistance from their own government, for many families the choice to move from Syria to Gaza is completely necessary. Despite the eight-day conflict last November between Israel and Hamas, and the continued attacks from the Israeli army on Palestinian territories, the Gaza Strip currently seems to be a safer place to live than Syria.