US Secretary of State Antony Blinken rushed to the Middle East this week to make yet another push for a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians following yet another dramatic escalation in violence between the two sides.
Blinken urged peace in his meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, but the prospects could hardly be dimmer.
More than 30 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank since the beginning of this year, mostly at the hands of Israeli security forces. And last Friday, a Palestinian gunman killed seven Israeli civilians outside a synagogue in the Israeli settlement of East Jerusalem, one of the worst attacks in the city in years.
I spent a month in the West Bank in October as part of research for a book on far-right and Islamist politics. Within the first ten days after I arrived, seven children under the age of 18 were reported to have been killed. Over the course of one month, I documented 29 Palestinian deaths in total – and two killings of Israeli soldiers – most of whom under the age of 30.
Because the mainstream English media does not consistently report on these killings, I relied on several social media channels to cross-check names and pictures. And because of regular censorship on these platforms of Palestinian news sources, such as the Hamas-affiliated Quds News Network, the death toll is likely to have been even higher.
While peace has long been elusive in the occupied Palestinian territories, there is a new dimension to the latest violence in the West Bank, which some observers believe could now spiral out of control.
Unlike previous unrest, newly emerging Palestinian militant groups are increasingly fragmented and calling for a popular uprising. This demand, in turn, coincides with a radical shift to the extreme right in Israel’s government.
The emergence of the Lion’s Den
Many Palestinians, and the young in particular, have lost trust in the governing body of the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority, and other local factions to protect them from expanding Israeli settlements and suppression by Israeli security forces.
This new phase of resistance aims to unite these disaffected youths who are seeking an alternative to the traditional Palestinian power structures.
Several new armed groups have emerged in the past year and a half as the public support for armed resistance has grown stronger. Israeli security forces responded in early 2022 with an operation called “Break the Wave”, which targeted fighters in two West Bank cities, Nablus and Jenin.
This operation, which has paralysed the security apparatus of the Palestinian Authority in these areas, was followed by many more raids by security forces throughout 2022 and a deadly start to 2023. This has only amplified the anger of Palestinians.
At the vanguard of this uprising is one group called the Lion’s Den. It is believed to have evolved as an offshoot of an earlier group, the Nablus Brigade (an affiliate of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades).
The Lion’s Den has gained strength since the August killing of one of its founders, Ibrahim al-Nabulsi, a charismatic fighter also known as the Lion of Nablus. He was reported to be either 18 or 19 at the time of his death.
As an alternative to more established groups, such as the Islamic Jihad, the Lion’s Den has a relative lack of structure and organisation. This disruptive appeal is part of what draws people to the group. Each time a notable member of the Lion’s Den is targeted and eliminated, the group loses strength in numbers and organisation, but is boosted in its overall appeal.
As one fighter told Al Jazeera,
We are a group and not an organisation. Anyone who wants to resist the occupation is welcome. […] It’s about sending a message [to Israel], that we will not sit idly by.
A right-wing government in Jerusalem
The pendulum of violence is also becoming less predictable with the establishment of an unprecedented far-right government in Israel.
The re-election of Netanyahu and the formation of a new coalition government with the ultra-orthodox and anti-Arab parties, the Religious Zionist Party and Otzma Yehudit, is likely to further legitimise support for de-centralised groups such as the Lion’s Den.
The appointment of Itamar Ben-Gvir as national security minister could inflame tensions even further. Ben-Gvir has previously been convicted for incitement of racism and unashamedly promoted violence against Palestinians in the weeks leading up to taking office.. He is also an outspoken advocate for settlement expansion and the ultimate annexation of the West Bank.
Isreal’s Security Cabinet has also announced a series of harsh responses to the latest outbreak of violence in the West Bank. These include strengthening Jewish settlements in the West Bank, along with cancelling the social security benefits for families of attackers and making it easier for Israeli citizens to obtain gun licenses.
Whether it is the Lion’s Den or another group that takes the lead in the uprising, it is clear young Palestinians in the West Bank will no longer take a passive role when it comes to the actions of Israeli security forces or politicians.
With Abbas lacking any control over the new armed Palestinian groups and Israeli political leaders such as Bezalel Smotrich (head of the Religious Zionist Party) and Ben-Gvir shaping the narrative of Israeli politics, discussions of a two-state solution and peace in the Palestinian territories are likely to take a backseat for the foreseeable future.