Inside the military-settler siege of Nablus

A woman holds up a sign in support of Lions' Den at a protest against the closure of the Nablus area, Deir Sharaf (Anne Paq - Activestills)

Oren Ziv

+972 Magazine  /  October 25, 2022

For three weeks the Palestinian city and nearby towns have been encaged by Jewish settlers and soldiers, targeting an armed resistance group that has inspired mass support in spite of escalating violence and daily hardships.

At sunrise on October 4, the eve of Yom Kippur, a group of around 100 settlers gathered on the road leading from the Palestinian town of Huwara to the city of Nablus in the northern occupied West Bank. The settlers, some of them armed with automatic weapons, blocked the long traffic line of Palestinian cars trying to enter the city, and performed Selichot — penitential poems and prayers traditionally recited ahead of the Jewish High Holidays and on fasting days.

Describing their action as a “civil besiegement” of Nablus, the settlers were escorted by Israeli soldiers and Border Police officers, who closed a metal gate located along the road to ensure Palestinian vehicles couldn’t pass. Since then, almost every day, settlers have flocked to the city’s southern entrance to stop Palestinians from entering or exiting. On some days, even local Israeli politicians and Knesset members took part.

This was hardly the first time that settlers, with the aid of security forces, had blocked the roads around Nablus. But the action on the eve of one of Judaism’s holiest days marked the beginning of a new, violent campaign of collective punishment aimed at tightening Israel’s control over Palestinians in the West Bank, in the wake of an increase in armed Palestinian attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers in the area.

The attacks themselves come against the backdrop of months of an intensified Israeli military campaign — codenamed “Operation Break the Wave” — in the northern West Bank, particularly in the Jenin and Nablus refugee camps, along with rising settler violence against Palestinians and their property. Although both Jenin and Nablus are designated as Area A — meaning they fall under the security and administrative control of the Palestinian Authority (PA) — Israeli forces have been frequently entering the cities and the camps to carry out arrests or assassinations, at times with the coordination of PA security forces.

A key aim of the settlers’ recent actions, according to one settler leader, is to pressure the Israeli government into carrying out a “large-scale operation” in Nablus against “terror.” According to reports in the Israeli media, the army, in turn, is implementing the closure in part to pressure the PA to act against, among others, a group of militants in Nablus known as “Lions’ Den,” which has claimed responsibility for recent attacks and is posing a major challenge to both the Israeli security establishment and the PA.

Events escalated to a new level last night and early this morning when Israeli forces stormed the Old City of Nablus, killing five Palestinians (including one confirmed Lions’ Den member) and wounding 20. Palestinian residents reported the presence of drones and snipers in the area, with PA security forces also reportedly locked in confrontations with Israeli soldiers during the raid. The army also killed another Palestinian overnight in the village of Nabi Saleh, near Ramallah, during a spontaneous demonstration against the incursion into Nablus. A mass funeral was held in the city today.

“The situation in Nablus and the surrounding villages is very bad, and it will explode,” Faiz, a Palestinian resident of the area, told +972. “When you lock someone in a cage, this is what happens.”

‘A total blockade’

On October 12 — the day after a Palestinian gunman shot dead an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint near the settlement of Shavei Shomron in an attack claimed by Lions’ Den — the Israeli army launched its own siege of the area and blocked most of the entrances to Nablus, using their vehicles, earth mounds, and other objects. Soldiers only allowed Palestinians to pass by car and by foot through a small number of roads following a thorough inspection.

The blockage has caused enormous traffic jams at the makeshift checkpoints, with Palestinians waiting for hours to exit as soldiers slowly checked each car, passengers’ ID cards, and in some places even took photos of Palestinians with their cell phones. Above the city, and in the surrounding villages, the sound of drones can be heard at nearly all hours of the day

One of the busiest checkpoints is in the town of Beit Furik, where hundreds of vehicles were waiting in line to pass through the eastern exit of Nablus when +972 visited the area last week. In order to enter Beit Furik, which leads to other Palestinian villages in the area, Palestinians must wait for hours before crossing a settler-only road which they are only allowed to use for a few meters.

Last week, dozens of people were waiting outside their cars near the yellow metal gate that was repeatedly opened and closed by the soldiers. After a car passed through the gate, two soldiers would check the passengers’ IDs and then let them drive away. According to Palestinians there, only a single car is allowed to pass every few minutes. 

Faiz, who volunteered to coordinate Palestinian traffic around the checkpoint, told +972 about a resident of Beit Furik who encountered the new checkpoint on a visit from the United States. “It took him 12 hours to fly here. He lives 2.5 kilometers from the checkpoint, but it took him another 12 hours to arrive home. This is the reality here, people wait between 12 and 14 hours. There are women who cannot use the toilet, small children, and sick people — [the soldiers] don’t care.”

Ali, a resident of Beit Dajan, a village located just across the road from the checkpoint, waited for over three hours after arriving from a day of construction work in Tel Aviv. “I have a permit to travel all across the country, but I cannot arrive at my parents’ house, which is only a few hundred meters from here,” he said, visibly frustrated. 

While alternative routes to the village do exist, Palestinians were barely able to use them over the last few weeks, since they were being blocked by settlers. “Now it is a total blockade. We feel the settlers pressured the army to do this. They punish hundreds of thousands of people because of the actions of a few.” 

Cars continued lurching forward as the soldiers at the checkpoint closed the metal gate from time to time, bringing traffic to a complete standstill, while shouting at people to move back.

“I try not to pass the checkpoint these days — I did it only one time in the past week,” said Yousef Abu Thabet, who lives in Nablus and is originally from Beit Dajan. “Today is my second time. I try to stay in Nablus and avoid it. It’s the weekend so I’m taking my wife and my four kids to see their family. It’s been three hours of waiting so far. Today, there are young people coordinating the traffic — there is one line only, which is good. Sometimes, soldiers close the gate and they don’t let people pass for some time. We don’t understand why.”

Nasim Khatatbeh, who was also waiting in the line, noted: “Here you see people smoking shisha on the road, praying, studying, playing. It’s daily life now. I am a poet. I wrote a whole poem while waiting.” He added, “I don’t think all this is for inspecting cars — they just want to limit the [armed] group. We’re being used as human shields.”

Responding to inquiries from +972, the IDF Spokesperson stated that the decision to block roads and traffic to and from the area “was made as part of the increased security activity in the Nablus district,” adding that only a few roads were left open with “strict inspections.”

Rise of a resistance group

The Lions’ Den militia has been at the center of the dramatic developments in and around Nablus in recent months. The group is reportedly made up of Palestinians who had previously been members of other factions, such as Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades — popularly regarded as the military wing of Fatah, the political party that controls the PA and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Many of its members are young, secular, and no longer affiliated with any of the major Palestinian parties. The militants are particularly active in Nablus’ Old City and Balata Refugee Camp, two areas with a history of resistance against the occupation.

According to an interview with Palestinian journalist and activist Younis Tirawi, the group as it is known today — whose name derives from a phrase used by Palestinians since the Second Intifada to describe the Old City’s Casbah neighborhood — was formed by Abdelhakim Shaheen, a Nablus resident who was arrested on November 2021. Two of Shaheen’s friends who lived in the Old City, Adham Mabroka and Mohammed al-Dakhil, who were part of the cell, refused to turn themselves in following threats by the Shin Bet. Just three months after Shaheen’s arrest, in February 2022, the two men were assassinated by Israel.

After that, Lions’ Den, then led by Ibrahim Nabulsi and Mahmoud Banna, began blocking the entrance to Joseph’s Tomb — a holy site near Nablus — to Jewish worshippers who visit under the guard of Israeli soldiers. After the army killed Nabulsi in August, the group “decided to shift from defense to attack,” according to Tirawi, focusing in particular on military and settlement targets. Since then, the group has gained national prominence, with more young people joining and others establishing similar groups in other cities across the West Bank.

Despite the chokehold on the city, Lions’ Den has continued to respond to Israeli military and settler aggression. A few days before Yom Kippur, on October 2, settlers demonstrated at another entrance to Nablus near the settlement of Itamar; armed Palestinians opened fire at soldiers guarding the settlers, wounding one. Then, on October 11, a gunman from the group carried out the shooting attack at a checkpoint near Shavei Shomron, killing one soldier who was guarding settlers taking part in a march on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

A source inside the Israeli security establishment who asked to remain anonymous told +972 Magazine that the reason for Israel’s ongoing closure and incursions is to counter militant activities like those of Lions’ Den. The source explained that the shooters behind the attacks on military posts and vehicles over the past two months came spontaneously from inside Nablus, without any organizational structure or hierarchy; this led the army to opt for restricting the movement of all Nablus residents because, the source said, there is no way to predict who will take part in a shooting. 

The source added that the attacks took place two to four times a week before the army’s closure, but have now decreased. He also said that the army is facing “pressure from the settlers — they want Operation Defensive Shield II, [which is] unrealistic.” (“Defensive Shield” is the codename for a large-scale and devastating Israeli military operation during the Second Intifada.)

The fact that Lions’ Den lacks any visible structure is a challenge to the Israeli security establishment, the source continued, adding that collective punishment could push more Palestinians to join the armed resistance. “We had many dilemmas other than to take this step [of closure]. We understand the collateral damage to the population. But we are seeing shooting attacks, people are dying, and we need to stop it,” they said.

When asked about both the military’s goal and the expected length of the closure, the source responded: “We need to dismantle… the Lions’ Den. We can’t live with the fact that they initiate attacks on settlements and army posts. We were in a crazy trend of a few attacks per week, and the first step is to decrease this trend.”

Meanwhile, Israel is using direct and indirect violence in an attempt to eradicate the group. On October 16, Israel announced it would deny entry permits to 164 family members of suspected Lions’ Den militants. On the morning of Oct. 23, Tamer al-Kilani, a prominent member of Lions’ Den, was killed by an explosive device that was rigged to his motorcycle.

The group blamed Israel for the assassination, which it claims took place with the help of a local Palestinian resident, though no one has taken responsibility yet. Al-Kilani reportedly took part in several key operations, including allegedly sending a 19-year-old Nablus resident to carry out an attack in Tel Aviv last month, which was thwarted by Israeli security forces. 

Settlers raid Huwara

Despite the severity and scale of Israel’s measures, the likes of which have not been seen in Nablus since the Second Intifada two decades ago, the army’s actions have still been insufficient in the eyes of the settlers, who have continued taking matters into their own hands.

On October 13, following a report that Israelis, including children, were wounded by Palestinians throwing stones in Huwara, dozens of settlers raided the town, which for much of the past year has been the target of settler violence often backed by Israeli soldiers. The settlers, both minors and adults, carried rifles and clubs, with one settler wielding an ax. (The Israeli army later confirmed that one of the group was an off-duty soldier.)

The group tried to enter Palestinian stores and began throwing stones at passersby, beating people, and breaking the windows of vehicles. A few soldiers who were present at the scene were pushing Palestinians back, throwing tear gas at them, and firing into the air, while allowing the settlers to continue their attack.

The violence lasted 15 minutes, at which point more soldiers and Border Police officers arrived at the scene, and the settlers began to leave. Not a single one of the attackers was arrested. The soldiers remained in the area and continued firing tear gas and blocking the roads. The following day, settlers returned to Huwara, throwing stones at Palestinian homes, while a soldier who passed by in an army vehicle opened fire at one of the houses.

The attacks on Huwara made little noise in the Israeli mainstream media — that is, until October 20, when settlers attacked Israeli soldiers in the town. One of the assailants, who was arrested and handed over to the Shin Bet, was a soldier from a West Bank settlement near Nablus. In contrast to the overwhelming silence around the settler attacks on Palestinians, the settlers’ violence against soldiers was roundly condemned by Israeli leaders across the political spectrum, including those on the far right.

According to data provided to +972 from the human rights group B’Tselem, since the beginning of 2022, 107 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, 16 of them in Nablus and its adjacent refugee camps. Five were killed by Israeli civilians, and one was killed by either soldiers or settlers. The figure does not include Tamer al-Kilani, the Lions’ Den fighter who was killed in an explosion last Sunday, for which Israel has not yet officially claimed responsibility.

+972 reached out to the IDF Spokesperson, Israeli police, and the Shin Bet for official data on the number of incidents in which Palestinian militants attacked settlers or soldiers in the West Bank in recent months, as well as the number of incidents in which settlers attacked Palestinians or soldiers during that same period. The IDF Spokesperson said that it would publish the number of attacks by Palestinians against settlers and soldiers at the end of the year, while stating that there has been a decrease in attacks in the Nablus area since the closure went into effect on October 12.

Israel police refused to provide +972 the same data, while the Shin Bet has yet to respond to our request. According to an Israeli security source quoted in Haaretz, there were more than 100 attacks by settlers against Palestinians between October 11 and 21, most of which took place near Huwara in the northern West Bank.

‘No Palestinian party has such power’

The Israeli army’s hope that the movement restrictions would exert direct or indirect pressure on the Palestinian Authority to act against Lions’ Den has so far failed. While the PA may be unhappy with the militants — viewing them as a threat to its control of the city — their increasing popularity has made PA officials uncertain that it can reach an agreement that would absorb the fighters into the PA security forces and receive a kind of amnesty from Israel, as it had with previous armed groups over the years.

Israel’s security logic also does not take into account the fact that the army’s numerous raids, assassinations, and interventions in the northern West Bank this past year are both a main cause of the PA’s eroded position, and a major catalyst for young Palestinians to join armed groups in defiance of Israel and the PA, the latter of which is widely viewed as a subcontractor of the occupation. Palestinians have also led numerous strikes and demonstrations in recent weeks, protesting the army’s attacks and expressing solidarity with the armed resistance.

A Palestinian journalist from Nablus, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, told +972 that there is broad popular support in Palestinian society for Lions’ Den. “They are respected because they are not connected to any dubious figures or political parties, but are independent. This has created a clean image for them. Even if you don’t like them, you can’t come out and say it — it’s not acceptable. Even business owners say they are willing to sacrifice their earnings for the cause,” he said.

“When Lions’ Den used Telegram to call on people to take to the streets last week, everyone came out in Jenin, in Nablus, everywhere in the West Bank,” the journalist continued. “They have a wide influence on the public. No Palestinian party has such power — not Hamas, not Fatah, not the PA. It’s amazing how a group of guys managed to achieve something like this simply through Telegram.”

The journalist emphasized that armed resistance movements like Lions’ Den are now the most formidable force operating in Nablus, and that any attempt by the PA to crush the group will be met with a severe response. He pointed to the arrest in late September of Musab Shtayyeh — a Hamas fighter who was high on Israel’s most wanted list and had survived several assassination attempts — leading to large protests in the city against PA forces. “For the public it is clear: either you are with the PA or with the fighters. There is no longer any discourse of being both,” he said.

Regarding the possibility of a “deal” with the PA, under which Israel would in theory also refrain from arresting the militants, the journalist said: “It’s a difficult question whether such a deal will work. Some of the militants are only children, so they can be convinced, yet a few days ago they refused this during a meeting. The PA has contacted them several times and claims that it is impossible to defeat Israel with the help of an M-16. The PA says that it is trying to help these young men lead successful lives, but for Palestinians, this position is betrayal, an attempt to suppress the resistance.”

Rafaa Masamer, another journalist who lives in Nablus, described the deteriorating situation in the besieged city: “Electricity and water are no problem. The problem is a lack of food. There are very few vegetables and fruit, almost no poultry or meat. Prices are rising. A few days ago I bought a kilogram of tomatoes for five shekels; yesterday they charged me 12 shekels.”

The army’s hold over such a large area of the West Bank has further cut off residents’ ability to sustain themselves from other sources. “Some of the villages around Nablus are also under siege, such as the village of Deir Sharaf,” she continued. “From there you can reach towns and cities such as Sebastia and Qalqiliya, where most of the vegetables come from.”

According to Masamer, local committees have begun sprouting across the city in order to distribute food baskets to the poor, particularly in the Old City, Balata Refugee Camp, and Ein Beit al-Ma’ Camp. Meanwhile, the municipality has announced an exemption from paying water bills because of the closure. “Three days ago, members of a local committee from Nablus tried to bring vegetables to the city through Deir Sharaf, and soldiers fired tear gas at them,” she told +972.

“Trade is paralyzed. Not a single Palestinian citizen of Israel is coming here. Many of my friends stayed in Ramallah to work. Palestinian laborers in Israel prefer to stay in the villages rather than return to Nablus. Some of them also remain inside Israel. But their families are anxious. Everyone is afraid that there will be another invasion of the city, which would leave the women by themselves without their husbands or brothers,” Masamer said. 

“The occupation is repeating its mistakes by reinforcing collective punishment,” she added. “People are hoarding candles, hoarding food boxes, preparing themselves for war. The people have gotten used to these collective punishments and know that Israel and the occupation are to blame for them. No one knows when the siege will end. It is a legitimate question how long we will manage to survive.”

Oren Ziv is a photojournalist, reporter for Local Call, and a founding member of the Activestills photography collective

Ahmad al-Bazz, Meron Rapoport, and Yuval Abraham contributed reporting to this article