After a violent uprising by Palestinians against Israel subsided nearly two decades ago, Abu Abdallah, then a leader of a Palestinian militia, stashed away his assault rifle and later became a civil servant in the West Bank city of Nablus.
When Israeli troops raided Nablus late last month, Abu Abdallah, now 42, lent that rifle to a group of Palestinian gunmen 20 years younger who were locked in a four-hour gun battle with the soldiers in the Palestinian city. That made him a party to the conflict for the first time in years — one of several former fighters who returned to the fray that day, he said.
“We have this feeling that we need to do our duty,” said Abu Abdallah, who asked to be identified by his nom de guerre in order to avoid legal repercussions.
For years, the Palestinian Authority, the semiautonomous body that administers cities in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, like Nablus, worked with Israel to keep Palestinian militias in relative check. The authority had hoped that building enough trust with Israeli leaders would persuade them to allow the formation of a Palestinian state.
But in cities like Nablus, the authority’s control is ebbing and its popularity is plummeting as hopes of statehood all but evaporate. A younger generation of gunmen has become increasingly active over the past year, mounting more shooting attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians, and opening fire far more often during Israeli raids on their towns.
Foremost among them is a new group called the Lions’ Den, the target of the Israeli raid in Nablus last month, whose support is growing even as its ranks dwindle through killings and arrests. Long-dormant fighters like Abu Abdallah are also stirring, spurred into action in part by the younger gunmen.
Those developments reflect growing support among some Palestinians for violent resistance to the 56-year Israeli occupation, as frustration grows with the entrenchment of Israeli settlements in the territory, attacks by Israeli settlers and what is seen as a corrupt and ineffective Palestinian Authority.
In the Old City of Nablus, a warren of alleys, Ottoman-era mosques and covered markets that has long been a stronghold for Palestinian gunmen, three young fighters said this past week in interviews with the The New York Times that they believed they had begun a new widespread insurgency, 18 years after the last one ended.
That sentiment explains in part why deadly violence in the West Bank has risen so sharply in 2023 and why polling shows that both Palestinians and Israeli Jews feel the region is on the cusp of an intifada, or a Palestinian national uprising, for the first time since the last one subsided in 2005.
Palestinian violence began rising last spring, under the previous Israeli government. Israel’s new far-right government took office late last year and began stepping up its response to recent attacks by Palestinian fighters. This past week, one cabinet minister issued a call to “wipe out” a Palestinian town at the center of recent turmoil.
The Lions’ Den group in Nablus has been responsible for much of the rise in Palestinian violence. In 2022, there were 61 shooting attacks, one of them deadly, on Israeli soldiers and civilians in and around the city, up from only three attacks in 2020, according to Israeli military records.
These attacks have prompted an increasingly forceful and even erratic Israeli military campaign. More than 60 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank so far this year, the deadliest start to any year this century in the territory, according to Palestinian officials. Most died during gun battles between Israeli security forces and Palestinian gunmen started by Israeli operations to arrest people suspected of involvement in carrying out or plotting attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians.
For many, the question now is whether Palestinians are about to start another violent intifada — a societywide effort to fight the occupation. The first intifada, in the 1980s, was defined mainly by protests and violent riots. The second, in the 2000s, also began with protests and riots, but soon devolved into terrorist attacks and Israeli military raids, leaving 1,000 Israelis and 3,000 Palestinians dead — and much of central Nablus in ruins.
Two decades on, signs of social support for violent resistance — and, in particular, the Lions’ Den — are found across Nablus. Many residents have placed photographs of slain Lions’ Den members on amulets hanging in the city’s main square. Songs about the group play in cafes. And their faces are seen on shop fronts, car windows and cellphone screens.
That support reflects how, to many residents, the gunmen are doing what the Palestinian Authority will not: fighting Israel.
The new generation of Palestinian fighters grew up “with no clear political horizon,” said Amid al-Masry, a community leader in Nablus from Fatah, the secular party that controls the Palestinian Authority.
“Israeli crimes, settlement expansion, high unemployment — all of that made them feel like they needed to do something different and take matters into their own hands,” Mr. al-Masry added.
Among Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, more than half would support another uprising and more than 7 in 10 support the Lions’ Den, according to a poll in December. And gunmen from the Lions’ Den believe an uprising is underway.
“We are already in an intifada,” said one 24-year-old fighter interviewed by The Times this past week in Nablus.
“An intifada without the Palestinian Authority,” interjected a second fighter, 25, who also requested anonymity to avoid incriminating himself.
That second view highlighted why, for some, the current escalation in violence falls somewhat short of a full-scale uprising, and may yet subside.
The second intifada was coordinated by Palestinian movements that had an organizational presence across the West Bank and Gaza — including Fatah, the faction to which Abu Abdallah belongs and that controls the Palestinian Authority. Fatah’s leadership has not called for another uprising, and senior officials dismissed a recent call by one senior Fatah member for Palestinian police officers to confront Israeli soldiers.
“For there to be a third intifada, there has to be a political decision that has not yet been taken,” said Mr. al-Masry, the Fatah community leader in Nablus. “The Fatah central committee has to take that decision,” he added.
Palestinian leaders in the West Bank say they are reluctant to change policy because a violent eruption would harm Palestinians more than it would benefit them. But that reluctance is partly what has prompted a younger generation of Palestinians to form new networks like the Lions’ Den.
The group was founded in February 2022, according to the three fighters interviewed this past week, though Israeli intelligence officers detected it only last July, an Israeli military spokesman said.
It is staffed mainly by young Fatah members frustrated by their leadership’s inaction, according to the fighters and Israeli and Palestinian officials.
But the Lions’ Den also includes fighters from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, two Islamist Palestinian groups that Fatah has traditionally opposed. Israeli and Palestinian officials say that Hamas and Islamic Jihad also secretly fund the Lions’ Den, seeking to fight Israel, destabilize the Palestinian Authority and exacerbate splits within Fatah, but not in plain sight.
Israeli officials said that the group had attacked soldiers as well as civilians and that a Lions’ Den member nearly carried out an attack in September in Tel Aviv before being foiled. The group itself claimed the killing of an Israeli soldier near Nablus in October, among other attacks.
The fighters describe their group as more of a loose affiliation of different subgroups than a cohesive entity. Several dozen gunmen fight under the group’s banner, they said, but not under a single leader. Most of them also belong to other groups, and only a minority are tied to the Lions’ Den alone.
Much of the group’s influence is rooted in its branding and reach on social media. Through frequent use of apps including TikTok, and by releasing dramatic statements and videos of its attacks, it has garnered hundreds of thousands of followers, inspired similar groups in other Palestinian cities and successfully called for strikes and marches across the West Bank.
“The soldiers of the Den are igniting the earth under the occupation’s soldiers like a volcano,” read a recent example of the group’s rhetoric.
The Lions’ Den also often publishes group photographs and videos of its affiliated fighters, masked and carrying assault rifles, projecting a sense of unity and purpose.
In reality, many of those guns do not work. Fighters often wait to inherit working rifles from those killed by Israeli soldiers, they said, or they borrow guns from people like Abu Abdallah. Others make their own weapons, sometimes by repurposing air guns, an Israeli military spokesman said.
The group’s numbers are down — from 60 at its peak in September to between 10 and 30 now, according to different estimates. Some members have been killed in Israeli operations, while around 30 have turned themselves over to the Palestinian Authority, Palestinian officials said, after being promised protection from Israeli reprisals in exchange for handing in their weapons and accepting a few months’ detention.
The group’s existence has put the authority in a bind. It is reluctant to crack down too hard on the Lions’ Den because the group has widespread popular support and its members have relatives and supporters in Fatah and the Palestinian Authority itself. But that decision not to rein in the Lions’ Den entirely has prompted Israel to act.
The Israeli security forces have entered Nablus in an increasingly brazen way, most recently in a raid in February that left 11 Palestinians dead. Those raids have bolstered the Lions’ Den’s support and reputation even as its operational abilities decrease, and they further diminished support for the Palestinian Authority, whose forces stood by as the raids played out.
Israeli officials believe that their raids — to arrest Lions’ Den operatives suspected of attacking Israelis — are limiting the group’s ability to carry out offensive operations outside the city. But Israeli military data also shows far greater resistance in Nablus and other nearby areas to the operations, leading to deadlier and more protracted gun battles.
In 2021, only one Israeli raid in the Nablus region led to a shootout with Palestinian gunmen, according to that data. In 2022, that number rose to 33.
And with each gun battle, the Palestinian Authority’s social standing falls as the den’s reputation rises.
“We like them, yes. We support them, yes,” Ibrahim Ramadan, the Palestinian Authority governor of Nablus, said of the Lions’ Den. But, he added, “we have to say to them, ‘That’s enough.’”
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