Nablus’ ‘Lion’s Den’ Has Become a Major Headache for Israel and the Palestinian Authority

The ‘Lion’s Den’ is a secular and unorganized cell consisting primarily of young Palestinian men. Within weeks, it has become the main driver of the shooting incidents towards Israeli soldiers around Nablus

By Yaniv Kubovich and Jack Khoury, HAARETZ    12.10.22

Residens of Nablus attack PA security forces following the arrest of Shtayah.

Early in 2022, Israeli security officials noted an increase in the number of shooting incidents directed at Israeli military targets in the Nablus area of the northern West Bank. The uptick in incidents was attributed, at the time, to a group called the Nablus Battalions, which had stepped up its activity in the Old City of Nablus.

Based on intelligence information, security officials had particular interest in several prominent figures in the group, and a decision was made to take action against them. In February, after the Shin Bet security agency determined that four members of the group planned on attacking Israeli soldiers shortly thereafter, it was decided to carry out targeted killings of the four.

During the day on February 8, troops from Israel’s Yamam counterterrorism force entered the center of Nablus to corner the gang. In a shootout that ensured, three members of the Palestinian group were killed – Ashraf al-Mubaslat, Adham Mabrukeh and Mohammed al-Dakheel – who were known to Israeli security authorities as members of the Nablus Battalions. A fourth man, Ibrahim al-Nabulsi, who headed the armed group, was not present at the time.

Six months later, on August 9, Israeli forces killed al-Nabulsi, who had been hiding in the Nablus area. The Israel Defense Forces announced at the time that he had been part of the Mabrukeh terrorist gang, which was “not affiliated with a terrorist organization.”

A month after al-Nabulsi’s death, an Israeli man riding in a car near the West Bank Palestinian village of Hawara was shot from a passing vehicle that fled the scene. A group called the Lion’s Den, which had been unknown to Israeli authorities, claimed responsibility for the shooting. Since then, the group, which has been responsible for a large number of shooting attacks in the Nablus area, has become a major problem for Israeli security forces and for the Palestinian Authority’s own security forces.

Israeli security officials believe that the group consists of people who had previously been members of other groupings and that a series of events led them to “rebrand” themselves as the Lion’s Den.

Members of the group are active in the Nablus area, mainly in its Old City and in the Balata refugee camp, and their declared goal is to confront IDF soldiers when they enter the city or come to protect worshippers at Joseph’s Tomb on the city’s outskirts. Most are young, secular men between the ages of 18 and 24 who don’t attend mosques and aren’t influenced by religious figures.

Speaking to Haaretz, members of the group acknowledged that their operations are centered around responding to Israeli army operations or are initiated on a local level. “There is no operations room in the military sense or formal plans or targets,” they say. They add that they are far from being an organized militia and don’t carry out operations such as what the military wing of Hamas or the Islamic Jihad do in the Gaza Strip.

A recording attributed to al-Nabulsi, shortly before his death: ‘I’m surrounded now, I love my mother and I’m going to die as a martyr. Protect the homeland, I’m administering an oath to all of you, do not put down your weapons.’<

“It’s more in the nature of a response to Israeli forces entering Nablus or random shooting at army positions or at settler targets,” they say, although there are attempts at times to challenge the army.

Until several months ago, most of the members of the Lion’s Den were identified with the Palestinian Fatah faction that controls the Palestinian Authority. Many are also relatives of people in the Palestinian Authority’s security forces and who in the past were in the Fatah’s Tanzim force or in armed groups that answered to the Palestinian Authority and its security forces.

Those involved in the Lion’s Den were spurred on by clashes with Israeli forces in the Jenin refugee camp. Amid internal jockeying for power within the Palestinian Authority in anticipation of a time when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is no longer at the helm, and in light of the tough Palestinian economic situation and the proliferation of weapons in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority, members of the Lion’s Den understood the potential that armed groups had to influence their standing.

One longtime Fatah member from Nablus’ Old City who knows some of those involved in the Lion’s Den told Haaretz that the grouping is far from being a hierarchical organization that takes orders from a command center or from a political leadership. “If we compare it to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade during the second intifada, when there was a hierarchy up to the head of the organization, Yasser Arafat and senior members of Fatah including Marwan Barghouti, now it’s completely different,” he said.

The Lion’s Den, he added, is a local grouping of young men, the vast majority of whom are people who have nothing to do and who come from several organizations. Most are affiliated with Fatah while others are identified with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Social Media Stars

Israeli authorities have demanded that the Palestinian Authority act against the Lion’s Den, but the PA’s problem was that, unlike in Jenin, where armed men have been getting support from Islamic Jihad, the Lion’s Den in Nablus are people who were part and parcel of Fatah and the PA itself, all of whom decided to rebel. As a result, the PA found it difficult to act without harming its own legitimacy in the West Bank, since members of the Lion’s Den have claimed that their only aim has been to protect Nablus residents from Israeli soldiers who enter the city.

Following the killing of al-Nabulsi, Musab Shtayeh assumed responsibility for its armed members. He began increasing organizational contacts – both economic and logistical – with Hamas. And to some extent, the Lion’s Den has become more of a problem for the Palestinian Authority than for Israel.

Hamas officials have also understood the new group’s potential. Since Hamas has had a tough time establishing an organized terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank due to the work of Israeli security agencies, Hamas has used members of the Lion’s Den as subcontractors of a sort.
Hamas has paid Shtayeh for his activity and in return has gained prominence on social media. Young armed secular members of the Lion’s Den have been able to use social media to spread their propaganda – particularly through TikTok. Hamas also understood that these young people needed to earn a living and began compensating them for every video that they posted about their activity. Such videos have also brought in support and funding for the Lion’s Den itself, which has grown and become stronger.

As members of the group became social media stars and as the link to Hamas became more significant, officials in the Palestinian Authority decided to act against them. On September 19, security forces from the PA went to Shtayeh’s hideout in Nablus and arrested him on suspicion of weapons and tax offenses and of harming the security of the PA. His arrest sparked clashes that turned into a day of fighting in Nablus between Palestinian security forces and armed members of the Lion’s Den and their local supporters.

“The Palestinians also understood that Nablus was an important test for them,” a senior security source said. “The understanding was that it involved activists who had been part of Fatah in the past and that failure [to deal with] them would bring about the establishment of other groups in all of the West Bank cities, which up to now have not been taking part in the events,” he said.

Despite the protests, the PA managed to restore quiet and placed Shtayeh in administrative detention.

About two weeks ago, President Abbas summoned the heads of the PA’s security forces for a talk. Some of those present described the difficulty in acting against armed men who have claimed that they are mainly acting against Israeli army troops and not Israeli civilians. According to sources, Abbas made it clear to the heads of the Palestinian security agencies that he was not prepared to accept the continued activity of armed men who are not subject to the PA’s authority. He demanded that efforts to collect weapons continue and that those engaged in what was described as “inciting activists” be arrested.

Winds of Change

Israeli security officials believe that Abbas underwent a substantial change following Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s speech to the UN General Assembly last month. Abbas views Lapid’s commitment to a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians as an opportunity to create change within the PA and is prepared to work to maintain dialogue with Israel.

According to Israeli security sources, last week’s incident in which Palestinian security forces extricated an Israeli Jewish family that had entered Nablus was an example of the change. The Palestinian forces were quick to reach the family and protected them from those seeking to harm them. The family was openly returned to Israel – in contrast with past instances in which Israelis were returned out of public view.

On the other hand, last week Abbas also publicly reprimanded Nablus Governor Ibrahim Ramadan after he made a comment that was considered controversial among Palestinians – calling Palestinian mothers who send their sons into suicide missions deviants. “People think such a mother is a fighter, but she’s not. She’s a mom who is sending her son to death,” the governor added.

Israeli sources said that they believed that publicly admonishing the governor reflected Abbas’ need to balance his actions to maintain his legitimacy to act against the Lion’s Den.

Haaretz has also learned that the PA has recently made efforts to integrate some Lion’s Den members into the Palestinian security forces with the aim of getting them to turn themselves in and lay down their weapons in exchange for limited jail terms or house arrest. They will later be integrated into the security forces if they demonstrate their commitment.

“Anyone who thinks that there will actually be a head-on confrontation and mass arrests at this time – taking into consideration Israeli conduct and the serious and dangerous escalation against the Palestinians – is mistaken, but there will be an attempt to settle their status,” a senior PA official told Haaretz.

In recent weeks, Israel has also taken significant steps to strengthen the PA. Unlike what was done in Jenin, the IDF has refrained from entering Nablus other than in cases in which there is information about plans to carry out terrorist attacks. The policy is an effort to strengthen the Palestinian security forces and not to create a situation in which they are forced to act in accordance with Israel’s demands. At the same time, the Palestinian Authority has begun acting against the Lion’s Den on its own and not following statements by the IDF chief of staff or other Israelis calling on the PA to do so.

Following last year’s war between Israel and Hamas and its allies in Gaza, there were opinion polls indicating that 51 percent of West Bankers supported Hamas. Now, following steps by the PA and economic and civilian measures instituted by Israel, the most recent polls showed a drop in support for Hamas in the West Bank – to 32 percent – where it was prior to last year’s war.

There are also differences of opinion among Palestinians when it comes to the Lion’s Den’s legitimacy. Business people in the West Bank have demanded that the PA deal with the phenomenon, which hurts business and commerce, particularly in Nablus and Jenin.
“Do you think that these are people who would be standard bearers for the resistance?” a prominent official in the Palestinian Authority told Haaretz .“[The Lion’s Den members] are a bunch of people with special interests who want money and power.”

October 14, 2022 | Comments »

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