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Lions’ Den and Other Palestinian Groups Are Endless Headache for Israel and PA

With tensions surging in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem and throughout the West Bank, a new generation of Palestinian youth is emerging, driven by their dissatisfaction with the PA leadership and with the Israeli army’s increased military operations in Jenin and Nablus – cities that are ostensibly under the full control of the PA.  

Israeli security forces said Thursday that they had arrested nine Palestinians during overnight clashes in east Jerusalem, a day after Palestinians declared a rare general strike there. The strike came in response to a five-day closure of the Shuafat Palestinian refugee camp, as Israeli forces continue to search for a Palestinian suspected of killing an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint at the entrance to the camp.

“The tight siege by the occupation forces in Shuafat refugee camp, Anata and Dahiyat al-Salam is collective punishment against the residents. We are talking about 150,000 people without a hospital or an ambulance, and the sick cannot go to the hospital for emergency treatment,” Fatah leader Rafaat Elyan tells The Media Line.

On Wednesday, Israeli forces shot dead a Palestinian teenager in the Al-Aroub refugee camp, in the southern West Bank.

Elyan says that what is happening “is tragic and reflects the Israeli political and security bankruptcy.”

Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians have been rising in the West Bank in recent months. Daily clashes between Israeli military forces and Palestinian fighters have resulted in the killing of more than 100 Palestinians, with hundreds more arrested. 

Since March, Palestinian attacks against Israelis have also sharply increased, both in the West Bank and Israel, killing at least 19 Israelis.

“The reason for the escalation is the Israeli occupation and its practices on the ground, including repeated incursions into cities, assassinations, and violations of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. These are the reasons that explode things, and we had previously warned Israel that our people would not remain silent about these violations,” says Elyan. 

Earlier in the week, an Israeli soldier was gunned down by shots fired from a speeding car near Nablus, in the northern West Bank.

Palestinians say these bold attacks signal the start of a new phase in the conflict with Israel.

The streets of Jenin and Nablus have become the epicenter in the West Bank of confrontations between Palestinian fighters and Israeli forces.

Many residents of Nablus say the recent gunfights in these areas are something they haven’t witnessed since the Israeli invasion of the city in 2002, during the Second Intifada.

According to a senior Palestinian official speaking to The Media Line on condition of anonymity, the Palestinian Authority could lose its grip in areas under its control soon if things don’t turn around. 

“The street doesn’t trust us anymore. We lost them and they view us as an extension of Israel working to serve and preserve its security.”

The PA is weak and unpopular among Palestinians, and a growing number of Palestinians say it is incapable of protecting them, leading to a security vacuum in areas under its security control. 

Now this new generation of Palestinians is taking up arms to fight Israel, alone. And with this seemingly growing security vacuum in the West Bank, Palestinians say someone has to step in.

“The people want someone to protect them, not a weak authority in Ramallah and another in Gaza,” says Elyan. 

“There is no organizational structure for these groups, new faces, a new approach, in the presence of extensive weapons in the northern West Bank,” he says. 

Elyan warns the continued Israeli army operations will lead to a further increase in tension. 

“Countering Palestinian resistance with greater military force will only result in more unrest and violence.”

The current spike in violence and tensions in the West Bank puts the focus on newly formed Palestinian groups like the Lions’ Den groups in Nablus, which claimed responsibility for several recent attacks against Israeli troops.

Moien Odeh, who specializes in human rights and international law and is an expert on Palestinian affairs, tells The Media Line that hopelessness of the future contributed to the rise of such groups. 

“My assessment is that these groups are a reflection of the frustrated Palestinian reality, both internally and externally. Internally frustrated by the bad political and economic situation and corruption, and externally by the absence of any political horizon with Israel, or at least a way to a solution,” he says. 

“These are young people who have no previous experience with the various Palestinian factions, and most of them were born after the Second Intifada or were children during the Second Intifada. Today, they are young and carry weapons against Israel.”   

These groups are comprised of young men in their teens to late 20s, who are not affiliated with any Palestinian factions and do not have a hierarchy of command, which makes it difficult to track them down.

“The lack of a faction head makes it difficult for Israel to reach them,” says Odeh.

The Lions’ Den, the Nablus Brigade, and the Jenin Brigade, say observers, came about as a result of a complete loss of confidence in the Palestinian political leadership, and these young groups are quickly asserting themselves as the new face of a new leadership on the ground with massive popular support. 

“Our people rallied around the resistance, and this is evidence that the Palestinians are not looking for an economic solution to their issue and facilities to obtain work permits. Our people are looking for dignity and to live in freedom and peace,” says Elyan. 

Some members are former cadres of different Palestinian organizations; others have no previous factional affiliations. According to local sources, the number of their members ranges between 30 to 50, and they are not linked to any Palestinian factions.

“These are young people who have no previous experience with the various Palestinian factions, and most of them were born after the second intifada or were children during the second intifada,” says Odeh.

He says the idea behind the formation of these groups is based mainly on a “defensive,” rather than an “offensive” tool, but that has evolved recently. 

“This development should worry Israel greatly,” says Odeh. 

Yoni Ben-Menachem, a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, tells The Media Line that there are several causes for the recent escalation. 

“This is the result of Hamas incitement, the weakness of the Palestinian Authority, the lack of a political horizon, and the result of the political chaos in Israel, that cannot help move … negotiations with the Palestinians.”

Ben-Menachem says that the economic measures offered by Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz will not contribute to calming matters without a political track.

“A political movement gives a way out for the PA to tell the street that we are negotiating, and we want some time, and that calm is necessary,” Ben-Menahem explains, adding that this will strengthen the PA’s position.

But speaking to the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, Gantz on Thursday vowed Israel would soon end the Lions Den phenomenon in the city of Nablus.

“Eventually, we will lay our hands on the terrorists. The Lions Den is a group of some 30 members. We will work out how to reach them and we will eliminate them,” Gantz said.

The defense minister said that Israel has bolstered its forces in the area and in the end “will get our hands on them.”
He also called on the Palestinian security services to “intensify their activity inside the territories they control, not to protect Israel, but to maintain the Authority’s rule in its areas of responsibility.”

Ben-Menachem, however, downplays these groups’ significance, saying that they are inexperienced with few followers.

“These are young boys, and their number does not exceed a few dozen. They are not compared to the groups that existed in the First Intifada, as they were bigger and stronger than these groups.”

The reason for their great popularity, says Ben-Menachem, is that “the streets support them.”

Israeli officials have criticized the PA security forces, saying that the increase in the number of attacks in the West Bank is due to their incompetence. This is something Ramallah vehemently rejects, insisting that it is Israeli actions that led to the spike in violence. 

“Israel is the one who contributed to weakening the authority and the security establishment, and it is now paying the price,” says Elyan. He insists that there is no security solution with the Palestinian people, only a political one, adding that “Israel must realize this equation.”

“These groups emerged as a result of their resistance approach and the street’s confidence in them, in the presence of a political vacuum left by the leadership and filled with the Lions’ Den and other groups,” he concludes.