Jun 15 2000

Bashar, let our people in

Published by at 12:00 am under Articles

(June 15) – The death of Syrian leader Hafez Assad was not seen as a major cause for sadness in Palestinian circles. Except for the national airwaves (Palestine TV and Voice of Palestine) the private Palestinian radio and television stations went on with their regular programming of music, entertainment and news.

In the streets and cafes of Palestine the question on everyone’s lips was not so much on how the death of Assad will affect the peace process, but on Bashar Assad’s relations with the Palestinians.

The news of Arafat’s intended visit to Damascus to pay his respects to the Syrians, and later, the news that the Syrians agreed to welcome him, was seen as possibly the beginnings of a Palestinian-Syrian rapprochement. 

Palestinian-Syrian relations have deteriorated ever since the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. At the time the PLO accused Syria of standing idly by as Palestinians and Lebanese were being shelled and bombed from land, sea, and air. Syria was silent as the PLO resisted the invading Israelis for over 80 days in Beirut.

Later, the death of the PLO military chief, Saed Sael, in Syrian controlled Beka’a, further exacerbated the relations and the consequent camps war in north Lebanon made a bad situation even worse. The PLO accused Syria of supporting the renegade Palestinian fighters and encouraged them to attack Arafat’s Fatah fighters in refugee camps near Tripoli.

The Madrid Conference failed to bring Syrians and Palestinians much closer to each other and the secret Oslo agreement was seen by the Syrians as a stab in the back.

This Palestinian-Syrian disagreement is reflected in various ways. For one, the Syrian government has hosted 10 Palestinian groups opposed to the peace process.

A radio station, the Voice of Jerusalem, controlled by the Syrian-controlled Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, is broadcast from Syrian controlled areas. The station, in operation since the late ’80s, has been waging an anti-Arafat, anti-Oslo campaign.

The official Syrian media has not been very kind to Arafat and the Palestinians. Arafat is regularly painted as a leader who has capitulated to the Israelis, compared to their leader who has stubbornly resisted attempts to accept anything less than a full Israeli withdrawal.

The Syrian media, not known for its advocacy of democracy and freedom of expression in Syria, regularly highlights the slightest anti-democratic actions by the Palestinian Authority.

But despite all these political differences between Syria and the Palestinians, perhaps the lack of freedom to travel to and through Syria is the single issue that most irritates average Palestinians.

Syrian border control officials refuse to allow in any Palestinian, whether living in the West Bank and Gaza or living in Jordan and using a temporary Jordanian passport. Jordanians and foreigners who have ever traveled to Palestine or Israel are also denied entry to Syria.

Syrian paranoia went to extremes to prevent anyone from visiting Israel before visiting Syria. For identification purposes, Israeli border officials at the Jordan River crossing used to put a sticker on the passports with a number matching the number of the sticker that they placed on the luggage. They did this simply to help with identification when a lot of luggage was being processed.

Syrian officials caught on and began refusing to allow anyone into Syria if their passport had stickers. Most people, of course, would usually remove the Israeli sticker once they were out of the terminal, but those stickers left a small mark at the edges. Syrian border guards would question anyone who had these marks on the outside of a passport.

Foreigners wanting to visit Syria who had an official Israeli stamp in their passport, or traces of the sticker on the outside, would often ask for a second passport at their embassy in Amman. Syrian officials quickly caught on and stopped allowing foreigners in with a passport issued in Amman.

Much hope is pinned on the junior Assad to help improve Syrian-Palestinian relations. If his aim is to open Syria to the outside world, one of the first steps is to end the draconian border policy and allow visitors in Syria has much to offer to Arabs and foreigners, and opening the borders would be a clear and positive signal to the outside world of Syria’s peaceful intentions.

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