Late last month, Israeli commandos entered Nablus under cover of darkness to confront the Lions’ Den, a newly formed Palestinian militant group behind a string of attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers in the occupied West Bank this summer.
For more than an hour, the narrow alleyways of the old city echoed with explosions and gunfire. By the time the weapons fell silent, one Lions’ Den leader and four other Palestinians were dead. A further 20 were injured.
The shootout was one of the most intense of a series of violent incidents in the West Bank this year that has fuelled longstanding fears that the security situation in the territory — which Palestinians seek as the heart of a future state, but which Israel has occupied since 1967 — could spiral out of control. Tor Wennesland, the UN’s Middle East envoy, recently warned of “a deadly cycle of violence that is increasingly difficult to contain”.
Israel began conducting near-nightly raids in the territory following a spate of attacks by Palestinians that began in the spring and have killed 30 Israelis this year. According to the UN, Israeli forces have killed 122 Palestinians in the West Bank this year, putting it on course to be the bloodiest for Palestinians there since 2005, the end of the uprising known as the second intifada.
Many of the Israeli raids have focused on Jenin and Nablus, two restive cities in the north of the West Bank where the Palestinian Authority (PA) has limited influence, with Nablus increasingly targeted as the Lions’ Den’s activity accelerated this summer.
The group, made up of a few dozen young Palestinians, never had comparable capabilities to the established militant factions, according to security officials. “They’ll tap into whoever will support their activity, but there’s not a massive infrastructure of transactions like we see with Hamas or Islamic Jihad,” an Israeli military official said.
But its emergence captured the imagination of Palestinians who long ago lost faith in the stalled peace process, and are deeply disillusioned by their leaders in the PA. Posters of its dead fighters line the stone walls of Nablus’s old city. The house where one of its early leaders was killed quickly became a shrine, while its account on the Telegram app has more than 230,000 followers.
“People . . . feel there’s no hope for a solution,” said Bassel Kittaneh, a community activist from Nablus who was jailed in 2003 for affiliation to Hamas’s military wing. “So when they find a group of guys like this, they will support them.”
Avi Melamed, a former Israeli intelligence official, said the fact the Lions’ Den was not affiliated with any existing faction was also part of its appeal. “The most significant factor in the story of Lions’ Den is that it meets the Palestinian need for something new,” he said.
Over recent weeks, however, the group has been steadily weakened. Two days before the October raid another of its leaders was killed by an explosive device hidden on a motorbike that detonated as he walked past. Others have handed themselves over to the Palestinian security services.
But analysts say that even if the Lions’ Den is dismantled, it is unlikely to change the broader patterns of conflict in the West Bank. “It’s a matter of time before we see a new Lion’s Den or another group somewhere else,” said Michael Milstein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center of Tel Aviv University. “And the main problem is that the PA has a very limited impact on these organisations.”
Diplomats said the PA’s accelerating decline was a key reason violence had flared this year. It has faced simmering infighting as rival factions position themselves to succeed its 87-year-old leader Mahmoud Abbas.
“The PA’s loss of credibility and legitimacy has spilled over into the ability of the Palestinian security forces to maintain law and order,” said a western diplomat. “If they’re not seen as defending Palestinians, but as just co-ordinating with Israel, the perception [among Palestinians] is that they’re not only sidekicks, but also traitors.”
Officials in Nablus said other broader factors were also at play: anger at Israel’s 55-year occupation, and the coming of age of a generation too young to remember the 1990s Oslo Accords, which briefly raised hopes of a resolution to the conflict and an independent Palestinian state.
“There’s unemployment . . . the blockage by Israelis of Palestinian land, the construction of settlements all over the West Bank and Nablus, restrictions on movement from one place to another,” said Sami Ahmad Hijjawi, mayor of Nablus. “All these things have brought frustration.”
For now, Israeli officials say talk of a third intifada comparable to those that erupted in the late 1980s and early 2000s is overdone. “This is not an all-out national uprising,” said the military official. “If we see a burning coal we come and put it out so we don’t have an all-out fire.”
But others argue that, in such a fragile environment, a single spark could ignite a broader conflagration. Both Israeli and Palestinian analysts warn that the steady decline of the PA’s writ is making the situation increasingly volatile. And some fear this process could be accelerated if, as expected, Benjamin Netanyahu forms a new Israeli government that includes an extreme-right party whose leader has called for the organisation to be disbanded.
Ibrahim Dalalsha, director of the Horizon Center, a Ramallah-based think-tank, said: “What we’re seeing is not an intifada, but the upturn in violence in the past few months is a sign of the weakness in the PA’s ability to prevent the formation of armed groups like in Nablus.
“But if there were a breakdown in security co-ordination, a further weakening of the PA, it could lead to such a confrontation.”