The new generation of Palestinian armed groups: a paper tiger ?

International Crisis Group  /  April 17, 2023

Young Palestinians have formed new armed groups across the West Bank. Small, disjointed and scattered, they lack a clear political agenda. But both Israel and the Palestinian Authority have found reason to exaggerate the threat they pose to the status quo.

In the past couple of years, a new generation of armed groups has arisen among West Bank Palestinians, drawing fire from both Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), as well as attention from farther afield. That these groups are emerging is notable, but not unprecedented. In the past, such groups were affiliated with major political factions, usually one of the constituent elements of the Palestine Liberation Organisation or the Islamist movement Hamas. Research in Nablus in March shows that the new groups, by contrast, appear to be unaligned and acting independently. They are driven by an inchoate but profound frustration with the status quo – from the Palestinians’ own ineffective leadership to the brutality of the ever-deepening Israeli occupation and an ailing economy.

These groups, which first appeared in Jenin, a city in the northern West Bank, and have since replicated themselves across the territory, have frequently fought the Israeli army in its incursions into their home areas. Their militants have also carried out sporadic attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers. In response, Israel has targeted the groups, killing some of their members and detaining others. From its side, the PA, the institution created under the 1993 Oslo accords to govern the occupied Palestinian territories, has also worked to undercut the groups, resorting mainly to covert measures to do so. PA and Israeli officials have branded the groups “bandits” and “terrorists”, respectively, reflecting their somewhat different motives for portraying them as a threat. 

Deflecting attention from the governance crisis

It is no coincidence that the first such groups popped up in May 2021, after the PA cancelled legislative and presidential elections it had announced for that year and amid a burst of violence in the occupied Palestinian territories as well as Israel. As the elections were (and remain) long overdue, calling them off was deeply unpopular. Many Palestinians were angered further by the PA’s inaction during that spring’s bloodshed, which culminated in an eleven-day war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Before then, but even more so since, the PA has experienced a serious legitimacy crisis as a result of three main factors: its corrupt and authoritarian ways; the perception that it acts as a subcontractor for the Israeli occupation; and cuts in direct aid, notably from its two largest donors, Saudi Arabia and the U.S., which have curtailed its ability to provide basic services. These combined factors have also crippled the PA’s efforts to recruit, train and equip security forces, and to co-opt its opposition, key elements of its strategy for staying in power. 

This crisis could soon come to a head. What will happen when President Mahmoud Abbas, who is 88, passes from the scene is uncertain. Abbas has undermined all constitutional pathways to a succession, including by scrapping the scheduled 2021 election. As an array of senior PA officials and politicians manoeuvre for position in the post-Abbas era that will arrive, sooner or later, popular discontent is building. A failed transition could trigger violence or even the PA’s collapse in the face of popular unrest or jockeying among elites.

Against this backdrop, the PA has seized on local and international perceptions that the West Bank could descend into chaos (what people locally refer to as falatan amni), casting new armed groups as “bandits” that might seek to exercise state-like functions in the West Bank. In doing so, it is trying to solicit support in countering the groups from Israel and international actors, as well as from Palestinians themselves. Its warnings resonate with many West Bank residents, who remember all too well the chaos during the second intifada in the early 2000s, when men with guns engaged in extortion in several towns. These impromptu bands were exploiting the PA’s extreme weakness after Israel, in seeking to quash the intifada, demolished almost all the Palestinian security forces’ facilities, including administrative, training and detention centres, and arrested most of the officers. 

PA officials are using diverse tactics to weaken the groups. First, the PA is trying to evoke bad memories of the second intifada by accusing the new groups’ members of having criminal backgrounds. (Some West Bank residents and PA officials also say leading figures in the groups are known to be illegal arms dealers, but substantiating such accusations is hard.) In the old city of Nablus, where an armed group called Lions’ Den is active, the PA has even sent its own supporters, posing as Lions’ Den members, to shake down businesses in an attempt to tarnish the group’s reputation. PA security forces also have violently disrupted funerals of slain members of these groups, and local PA officials have spoken derogatorily about members and their relatives. The PA additionally has used its well-worn tactic of co-opting those who agree to disarm by offering them jobs in the security forces, cars and money to pay rent. 

Last but not least, the PA has used the existence of these groups to press Israel, unsuccessfully, to stop undermining what remains of its credibility by habitually staging military raids in the West Bank’s Area A, where it is supposed to have exclusive control. It has threatened repeatedly to suspend or limit security cooperation with Israel, though it has not followed through, and is unlikely to do so in any serious way, as it relies on the relationship for its very existence. An end to incursions, along with a halt to settlement expansion, was the PA’s principal demand at U.S.-sponsored summits in Aqaba, Jordan and Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt on 26 February and 19 March, respectively. Israel ignored the PA’s requests. Instead, it promised to return an estimated $78 million in tax revenue it has withheld from the PA since January 2023 in retaliation for the PA-backed UN General Assembly petition asking the International Court of Justice to issue an advisory opinion calling the Israeli occupation illegal. It also promised to reduce import taxes on fuel and other goods destined for the West Bank to ease the fiscal squeeze on the PA, though it has yet to take these measures. 

Israel has its own reasons for pursuing the new armed groups, which it classifies as “terrorist”. The groups have provided the Israeli army, now under a far-right government with annexationist objectives, with another pretext for entering Palestinian population centres in Area A, claiming to be going after militants either implicated in or allegedly planning attacks on Israel. Israel blames the PA for doing little to suppress the groups, leaving unstated the fact that, under the Oslo accords, Palestinian security forces nominally have exclusive sway only over Area A, whereas the groups can move throughout the West Bank, as of course does the Israeli army. 

A lightning rod for frustration 

As things stand today, this new generation of armed groups does not yet seem to pose a major security threat. Interviews with residents, Fatah members and PA officials in Nablus suggest that the groups are small, disjointed and scattered, without clear leadership. They first appeared in Jenin refugee camp. Later, similar groups emerged in the old city of Nablus and the nearby Balata refugee camp, and then also in camps in Tulkarem, Tubas, Jericho and Hebron. The two largest groups are the Jenin Brigades – 200 militants at most, according to estimates by Palestinian security officials, drawn mostly from disgruntled members of Fatah (Abbas’s ruling party) and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, with which they still have a strong connection – and Lions’ Den in Nablus, which comprises at most 100 members, mainly dissidents from Fatah but also some Hamas elements (who appear not to bring that movement’s agenda with them into the group). The groups’ composition reflects the socio-political makeup of the younger age cohorts in each locale, with most members between eighteen and 30 years old. For the most part, they are not overtly Islamist, and religion does not affect the groups’ character in terms of strategy or agenda, which they still substantially lack in any case.

Their posture is largely defensive, as militants engage in near-daily firefights with Israeli soldiers moving into Area A, a longstanding army practice that infuriates the population. Their offensive operations have been confined to occasional, small-scale attacks on Israeli military outposts, checkpoints and settlers. The groups do not appear to be carrying out attacks across the Green Line in Israel, possibly due to limits on their capacity and also for fear of provoking even stronger Israeli reprisals. Their actions appear highly performative, a type of showboating that stresses moral rather than military victories, embellished through excited declarations on the social media platform Telegram. Many members have freely shared their names online, along with details of their lives, and the most prominent figures are well known in the places where they live.

This form of resistance is a product of the singular circumstances in which it has arisen. Caught between a compromised, inept Palestinian leadership and a violent, unyielding military occupation, these new armed groups have become both vehicles and lightning rods for the pervasive anger among young Palestinians at the status quo. They have no apparent political agenda, organisation or strategy: they have not, for instance, indicated that they want to overthrow the PA or mount a serious challenge to the occupation. 

So far, separated geographically, the groups have consciously tried to transcend factionalism, eschewing competition to set themselves apart from the ruling elites’ fragmentation and zero-sum approach to politics. They profess to emulate past heroes of the Palestinian national movement. West Bank residents draw comparisons, for example, between Lions’ Den and the Night Guard, a group that emerged during the second intifada and had a similarly decentralised structure and no program beyond armed resistance to the occupation. But it seems that not all members join the new groups for particularly nationalistic reasons: some appear keen to use their participation merely to extract personal favours from the PA. 

These groups are also a response to the vacuum of leadership at the national level. Many Palestinians see them as providing a local, authentic alternative to the distant PA, a committed example of resistance to the occupation very much in contrast to what they and many others see as that body’s cynical, self-interested rule. For that same reason, some of the PA’s own security officers have forged links with groups like the Jenin Brigades, even giving them logistical support (although relationships are often also based on other factors, from shared social ties to political expediency). 

The groups’ apparent popularity contrasts with the anger many Palestinians feel toward the PA itself. When the PA arrested Musab Shattayeh, a Lions’ Den leader and Hamas member, on 19 September 2022, protests broke out in Nablus, Jenin and several refugee camps, leading to violent clashes with PA security forces. The latest polls show that public opinion is behind these groups. Those polls also indicate that most Palestinians would not care if the PA were to fall apart. 

Therein lies the real danger these groups pose to both the PA and Israel: they are the tip of an iceberg, having tapped into the deep-seated disaffection in Palestinian society. What the PA and Israeli counter-insurgency efforts have inadvertently done is to create continuous turnover in their leadership and rank and file. While, for now, the groups do not appear to pose much of a threat, that could change, particularly if current policies continue. In constant flux, they could become something quite different, local authorities and PA security officials said, anything from criminal gangs preying on their neighbours, as in the early 2000s, to insurgents mounting a serious challenge to the PA and Israel in the territories. 

The PA between a rock and a hard place 

The PA is trying to turn its weakness to its advantage, talking up the supposed threat these new armed groups pose to reassert its relevance to its backers – Israel and outside powers. It wishes to extract concessions from the former and funding from the latter. It stands accused of leniency with the groups, meaning that is has to balance its limited ability to use coercion and co-optation against its pressing need for greater political and financial support. 

Yet the PA’s backers view its problem in technocratic terms, as a lack of operational capacity, rather than a political conundrum inherent in the PA’s position that ties its hands. The PA is long since shorn of its nationalist credentials. A Palestinian leadership that fails both to make progress toward ending Israel’s military occupation and to supply basic services that would make people’s lives marginally more bearable cannot govern effectively.

Palestinians desperately want more competent, less corrupt government. Yet the PA’s greatest advantage is that no one – neither the Palestinian opposition, nor civil society organisations nor the new generation of armed groups – can present a strong, viable alternative to the status quo. Despite Palestinians’ fury toward the PA, the PA’s real power may lie in their inability to fathom a future beyond it.