The New York Times | Isabel Kershner | June 7, 2011
DAMASCUS – Gunmen from a pro-Syrian Palestinian organization shot and killed as many as 14 people during a protest at a Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus on Monday, WAFA, the official Palestinian news agency, reported on Tuesday.
According to WAFA and other reports, the fighters from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, which is backed by Syria, clashed with mourners in the Yarmouk refugee camp after funerals for Palestinian protesters who were killed on Sunday at the border between Syria and the Israeli-held Golan Heights.
The shootings on Monday took place after mourners accused the organization of sacrificing Palestinian lives by encouraging protesters to demonstrate at the Golan Heights, Reuters reported. Reports also referred to divisions in the camp between those who support the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and those who sympathize with the Syrian opposition, which is seeking expanded democratic rights.
The Palestinian leadership in the West Bank on Tuesday condemned what it called the “crime” committed in the Yarmouk refugee camp by what it called “armed groups” of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. The leadership said in a statement published by the Palestinian news agency that the Popular Front’s fighters had fired live ammunition into crowds of young demonstrators at the camp.
On Tuesday, Syrian police and plainclothes security officers ringed the headquarters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command in the Yarmouk camp and anger at the group ran high.
Witnesses said that mourners had marched to the headquarters on Monday after burying seven people killed in the border protest on Sunday. Mohamed Rashdan, 25, a shopkeeper who lives nearby, said the crowd began to throw stones at the organization’s headquarters. Then, he said, “the building guards began to shoot at us.”
“They were all Palestinians — no Syrian security men shot at us,” Mr. Rashdan said. “That made us so angry.”
Mr. Rashdan said he believed the demonstration at the border was organized to serve the interests of President Assad, and that the protest had nothing to do with seeking justice for Palestinian refugees and displaced Syrian residents of the Golan Heights.
He said that many camp residents blamed the Popular Front for organizing the border protest “to help Syria run away from its local crisis.”
“They got us involved in Syria’s local crisis,” Mr. Rashdan said, “and that is why we were so angry at the killing of our brothers and sons.” The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, which is led by Ahmed Jibril, has been bitterly at odds with the mainstream Palestinian organizations for decades and is defined as a terrorist organization by the United States.
Both Israel and the United States have suggested that the Syrian government orchestrated the confrontation at the border on Sunday, or at least did nothing to prevent it, to divert attention from its bloody crackdown on the antigovernment uprising in Syria.
A State Department spokesman, Mark Toner, said in Washington, “It’s clear that such behavior will not distract international attention from the Syrian governments’ condemnable behavior on its own citizens.”
The Syrian government said that 23 Syrian and Palestinian protesters were killed by Israeli fire as they tried to rush the border fence on Sunday. The Israeli military said that 10 of the protesters died after their firebombs set off landmines on the Syrian side of the border.
The Palestinian leadership in the West Bank hinted that it, too, viewed the Popular Front as having used the protests at the Golan Heights for its own political goals.
The leadership affirmed in its statement that the demand by the Palestinian refugees of 1948 and their descendants for a right of return to their former homes in what is now Israel “remained a sacred goal not to be exploited for any political purposes,” adding that the blood of those who were killed on Sunday at the border was not to be “exploited or traded for private interests.”
Liam Stack contributed reporting from Cairo and an employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Damascus.