Jerusalem24 – Wearing all black, fully masked, and with weapons held high and tight to their right, the members of the Lions’ Den walked the streets and alleys of the old city of Nablus in the occupied West Bank for the first time as an organized cross-faction armed group on 2 September, with hundreds of people in attendance.
During the memorial ceremony they held for Lions’ Den fighters Muhammad “Abu Saleh” Al-Azizi and Abd Al-Rahman Subh, who were killed by Israeli forces during a military raid on Nablus on 24 July, the Lions’ Den (“Areen Al-Osood”) announced themselves as “a phenomenon of continuous resistance derived from its unity on the ground, and from the roots of the past revolution”.
Since the beginning of the year, the West Bank has been witnessing one of the most intense escalations of violence by Israeli forces and settlers which in turn has been met by increased activity by Palestinian armed groups – mainly the Jenin Brigades, and the new Lions’ Den, who emerged from the Al-Yasmina neighborhood in the old city of Nablus.
Although the Lions’ Den have made themselves known on different occasions throughout the past year, usually in short video clips and statements, the 2 September appearance was their first public, and overt, declaration of intent. Until then little was known about the group, apart from claims by Israeli intelligence services publicized (and embellished) in Israeli and Palestinian media.
Bureau chief of Al-Sharq, veteran journalist, and political analyst Mohammad Daraghmeh tells Jerusalem24 that the emerging Lions’ Den group is a never-seen-before phenomenon in the West Bank.
“A need for unity”
“I covered the First and Second Intifadas,” says Daraghmeh. “The Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigades were separate from the Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades, and from Al-Qassam Brigades. Every faction had its military wing. Now, these groups are cross-faction, they don’t belong to one faction.”
What is unprecedented, explains Daraghmeh, is that young Palestinian men are rising above traditional differences between political factions, and engaging in armed combat side by side.
Jenin, he says, is a perfect example of this. “National symbols like Fathi Khazem and others always stress the fact and need to have unity between them. So, yes they are united, they are different from the [political] groups.”
Israeli practices on the ground reflect that the Israeli government is not interested in a two-state solution as it is heading into new elections, Daraghmeh says, which is a reflection of the broader situation of the past decades. “The Israelis have turned the West Bank communities into cantons.”
“Nowadays you cannot drive from Ramallah to Nablus without being attacked by settlers. People are confined into cities and towns with no access to water, land, and roads. People are living in prison.”
This all contributes to the rising popularity – and reach – of armed groups, particularly the Lions’ Den.
Wissam Hanoun, an ex-prisoner from Jenin refugee camp, told Al-Araby in an interview on 24 August, that Palestinian youth have been at the heart of renewed and intensifying activities to confront the Israeli military. “The group of young people who came together in June 2021 numbered about 20 young men, were sleeping in the alleys of the camp, and were an embodiment of the belief that ‘there is no entry to the camp without a clash,'” signifying that Israeli military and settler invasions of the city and its surroundings – particularly Josef’s Tomb, which has been at the heart of the group’s responsive activities – would not go unmet.
The emergence of the Lions’ Den
Daraghmeh believes that every generation in Palestine faces the facts on the ground according to their lived experience. “This generation is standing up, they are not scared of the Israeli invasion, and they want to try their luck with the struggle.”
“They don’t remember the atrocities of the Second Intifada.”
Conditions are also different now, according to Daraghmeh: the Palestinians are disillusioned with the peace process and hold no expectations of any negotiations. They believe “the PLO’s national project has hit a wall.”
“The people are not happy with the PA, but rather angry for not having any kind of democracy, no human rights. They are disillusioned with the old belief – and they want to work together regardless.”
In a video that began circulating on social media around the time of Nabulsi’s assassination on 9 August, Nabulsi claims affiliation to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, before proceeding to call for unity from the general Palestinian population. Following the assassination of Al-Shishani, Al-Dakhil, and Mubaslaton on 8 February, reports emerged that the three were affiliated with the military wing of the Fatah party.
But affiliation with a particular party or armed faction has not prevented young Palestinians from swelling the ranks of the Lions’ Den.
“An overwhelming majority in these armed groups is from Fatah,” stresses Daraghmeh. “Those mainly believe in Fatah’s core, and they have their own national symbols, like Marwan Al Barghouti, and Yasser Arafat. But they are willing to work with others.”
“They came to this conclusion after the national project hit a wall – when at the same time, Israel is taking what remains of the West Bank and its cities and towns, and building settlements.”
Israeli news website Walla, quoting the Shin Bet, says the founders of the Lions’ Den armed group are 26-year-old Adham “Mabrouka” Al-Shishani, 22-year-old Mohammad Al-Dakhil, 21-year-old Ashraf Mubaslat, and 18-year-old Ibrahim Nabulsi, all of whom were assassinated by Israel this year. Nabulsi, a popular and charismatic fighter, was able to recruit a significant number of young men to join the ranks of the Lions’ Den.
Many in Palestine believe the reappearance of the armed groups in Nablus since the beginning of this year was ignited by the deteriorating security situation in the cities of Jenin and Nablus and their surrounding refugee camps. Israeli media refers to the two northern cities as “the hornets’ nest”.
Around half of the 105 Palestinians shot and killed by Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank in 2022 have hailed from Jenin and Nablus.
In the heart of Nablus
The Lions’ Den were initially known as the Nablus Brigade, similarly to the Jenin Brigade.
Ahmad Azzm writes in Al-Araby on 24 August that the name “the Lions’ Den” and the decision of the youth of Nablus to adopt it, consciously or unconsciously, is an expression of their planning and working from a concentrated area like a den. Azzm says, “These young people do not embody secret cells that carry out their operations and then disappear, as did the commando actions in the past; rather, they’ve planted their guns and consolidated their presence among the people. They understand that they have to work from the depths of the camp and not its outskirts.”Azzm explains that in Nablus, the group was keen to embed itself in neighborhoods in the heart of the old city, such as Al-Yasmina and Al-Qaysariyyah.
“These young people know well that their whereabouts are known, and that Israeli intelligence officials know their exact locations – especially the so-called “Captain Anwar” in the Nablus region, who has called members of the Lions’ Den and their families to threaten them.”
Every generation stands up and takes things into its own hands, muses Daraghmeh. “This generation has nothing to do with the first and second intifada… the failure, the defeat, and the Israeli invasion… they haven’t experienced it. The ones who experienced it would think differently.”
If you arrest people, kill them, and humiliate them, says Daraghmeh, they will not stay silent – they will die loudly. “The more violent the occupation is, the more violent the fighters are. They see Israeli soldiers killing for no reason, like the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, all of this easy killing and taking of lives is moving people to explode, and react.”
Daraghmeh ventures that in the beginning, the Israelis tolerated the phenomena of having gunmen in Jenin and Nablus, as they thought “they could benefit from it politically, by telling the Americans and Europeans that the Palestinian Authority is weak and unable to control these cities.”
However, he adds that the scene shifted when Palestinian gunmen started carrying out the attacks further than the borders of their cities, and this was when Israel took a strategic decision to “take them down”.
“They [the Israelis] are orchestrating operations inside Jenin and Nablus to kill and assassinate them [the fighters]. The recent attacks in Jenin show how they didn’t give the fighters the chance to surrender, but rather killed them.”
“If this continues, I think Israel will go for an invasion.”
The United States is separately trying to pressure the Palestinian Authority into curbing armed activity, but according to Daraghmeh, this is not going as planned.
Watch the full interview with veteran journalist Mohammad Daraghmeh