Nablus rallies around the Lions’ Den despite setbacks

A Palestinian woman passes by photos of Nablus and Jenin fighters recently killed by the Israeli military, in Nablus Old City on 9 November 2022 (Ahmad al-Bazz - MEE)

Ahmad al-Bazz

Middle East Eye  /  November 18, 2022

Israeli military raids and a weeks-long siege slows down the group’s rapid growth, but their appeal in the West Bank remains strong.

In the alley in front of his grocery shop in the old town of Nablus, Ahmad Qandeel is hanging up photographs of dozens of local fighters recently killed by the Israeli military.

“I want people to memorize them and talk about them,” says Qandeel, who feels that the old town community’s “morale is high again” following a recent upsurge in Palestinian armed activity, which usually targets watchtowers and checkpoints that surround Nablus or confronts Israeli forces raiding his town.

Similar scenes are witnessed at the fruit market, where Abu Haitham Qamhiya’s shop is full of frames of fighters and logos of the newly created armed group, Lions’ Den.

“This group is clean. They are honourable and good young men. We know them,” he says.

These visuals, scattered all over the old town, are a reflection of the wide popularity of the new wave of local fighters, which has risen sharply since the first official public appearance of the Lions’ Den on 2 September. 

In a video, a few dozen armed men, all wearing black, all fully masked and in black hats, their guns tied with a piece of red cloth, can be seen. Their logo is formed of two guns, the Dome of the Rock of Jerusalem, and the full map of historic Palestine.

“In light of the raging revolution of our people, in Jerusalem, Gaza, and Jenin, we have come to announce that the spark has just started from the old city of Nablus,” the newly created group said in their first public press statement.

“When we, business owners in the old town, first heard about the armed group, we were skeptical,” says Basel Kittaneh, who runs a hostel in Nablus’s old town.

He mentions that a segment of the old town community was wondering why these young men were hanging around – their presence was thought by some to be dangerous, given the potential for Israeli operations to detain or kill them.

“Following the killing of an Israeli soldier, and the [Israeli] siege of Nablus, things have completely changed,” Kittaneh says. On 11 October, the Lions’ Den shot and killed an Israeli soldier in the occupied West Bank. 

Suddenly, the community in Nablus’ old town could see that the armed group was serious. They became supportive of them despite the economic and security damage they encountered as a result.

“People felt that they were real resistance men,” Kittaneh tells Middle East Eye.

Crackdown boosts popularity

Following the 11 October shooting, Israel imposed a military siege on Nablus. The traffic has noticeably decreased. The old town market is less busy than usual and the city’s main university, An-Najah, closed its campuses and turned to online working for over a week.

“Who got their life disrupted? Thousands of workers who wanted to go to work… and hundreds of merchants whose goods did not arrive,” read a Facebook post from the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (Cogat), which represents the Israeli military authority that presides over West Bank Palestinians. “Terror disrupts your life,” the post said. 

As the siege bit, the group’s popularity soared. Revolutionary songs could be heard in the alleys of Nablus old town. Young men and children started wearing clothes and necklaces depicting fighters, which are in high demand now they are sold by several souvenir shops.

Places in which Lions’ Den fighters have been killed have become popular destinations for many Palestinians, young and old. “People are thirsty for this type of resistance,” says Adham Khaled, who was sitting with his friends in the old town. “It has become a national cause now, including Nablus and its villages and refugee camps.”

For Khaled, the most noticeable evidence of the Lions’ Den’s striking popularity was witnessed on 18 October, after midnight, when the armed group asked Nablus residents to chant from their rooftops and march in the streets. 

It wasn’t just residents of besieged Nablus that took to the streets. Thousands of people from many West Bank areas heeded the call.

Anger at the PA

To tackle the increase in armed activity in Nablus, the Israeli army conducted hits on senior members of Lions’ Den on several occasions deep in Nablus old town. One of the largest military raids took place in the early hours of 25 October, when five Palestinians, including one senior leader of the Lions’ Den, were killed in and around Nablus old town. 

Yet, the Lions’ Den’s independence from traditional Palestinian political affiliations has made it harder for Israel to target the group. The group’s members include activists from Fatah, Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

On 19 September, Nablus witnessed more than 24 hours of clashes between residents and Palestinian Authority forces, following the detention of Musab Shtayyeh, a young man who has been active with the Lions’ Den and Hamas. Shtayyeh is still in PA custody.

As a result, angry young people took to the streets, blocked the city centre with burning tyres, and threw stones at Palestinian Authority forces. Protesters condemned the security coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and the “elimination of resistance”. 

“In his election campaign, Mahmoud Abbas said that he does not want to militarize the intifada anymore,” says Ibrahim Ramadan, the current PA governor of Nablus. 

He mentions that he has met with members of the Lions’ Den many times in order to reach a compromise and convince the fighters to turn themselves over to the Palestinian Authority. 

“This is a peaceful process. We never violently detain anyone,” says Ramadan, who highlights Shtayyeh’s case as an exception, due to his alleged Hamas affiliation. “We want to save our kids. They can’t confront Israel with simple weapons. This is a fact,” says Ramadan.

An activist from Nablus, who preferred to speak anonymously, disagrees with the PA narrative.

“Many of the Lions’ Den fighters were previously detained by the PA,” says the activist. He claims that the fighters’ friends, including some members of the PA security forces, were detained over “suspicions of approaching the group”.

Inspiration despite setbacks

On 3 November, Israel partially relaxed the movement restrictions imposed on Nablus, a step that brought some life back to the city. The Israeli decision was taken following the assassination of some senior members of the Lions’ Den and as more news of fighters turning themselves over to the PA emerged. 

Two prominent members of the Lions’ Den, Mahmoud al-Banna and Muhammad Tabanja, handed themselves over to the PA, which currently holds them in its prisons.

“After consulting my comrades, I agreed with our brothers in the security services to turn ourselves in, so they protect us from the occupier,” Al-Banna, who is wanted by Israel, wrote in a Facebook post.

The process usually ends with obtaining an Israeli amnesty for them, allocating them to the PA security services, and buying their weapons, according to Ramadan, the governor of Nablus.

As a result, the Lions’ Den issued a statement: “The Lions’ Den group did not ask any official or security party, with all appreciation, to take over any of its fighters. Whoever turns himself from our fighters, this is their [personal] decision and his choice,” it said. “It’s false to think that the group will end.” 

These developments have spread skepticism and concern around Nablus and opened up the question of whether the Lions’ Den group has been dismantled or not. Regardless of what the truth is, Samer Anabtawi, a Nablus-based political analyst, believes that the Lions’ Den model “has created a concept. It’s not just a phenomenon.” 

“These are cross-political-party youth who dragged us again from the square of negotiations to the one of resisting occupation,” says Anabtawi, referring to the independent nature of the current wave of Palestinian armed activism.

For Nawaf al-Amer, a journalist and writer based in Kafr Qalil, southeast of Nablus, the ongoing Israeli suppression of the group’s activists will only boost their appeal.

“The continuation of the assassinations… may attract the young generation and encourage them to join. They are becoming the inspiration for the young generation, which has only seen the occupation’s guns in their faces and the attacks of settlers,” al-Amer says.

In the past few weeks, a new armed group called the Balata Brigade, based in the Balata refugee camp east of Nablus, started releasing statements on Telegram about shooting incidents against Israeli targets. 

One fighter from the group was killed on 9 November while confronting Israeli forces raiding Nablus. Another smaller group called Jaba Brigade has also appeared, based in the village of Jaba, north of Nablus.

In addition, there is the ongoing rise of armed wings belonging to traditional Palestinian political parties such as Fatah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, which have been active in Jenin refugee camp. Especially relevant here is the Jenin Brigade, a quasi-branch of Islamic Jihad’s main armed wing, al-Quds Brigades.

While the near future looks foggy, Nablus will remain tense, with the coming weeks likely to see the Israeli assassination or detention of at least two Lions’ Den activists involved in killing an Israeli soldier – the only one killed by the group so far.

In the old town, the people will watch and wait, ready to follow a new generation of resistance.

Ahmad al-Bazz is a journalist and documentary filmmaker based in the West Bank city of Nablus