Mariam Barghouti & Yumna Patel
Mondoweiss / November 4, 2022
The Lions’ Den was relatively unknown outside of Nablus until a few months ago but today they have gained hero-like status across Palestine — for leading a revival of armed resistance against Israeli colonialism. This is their story.
The streets of the Old City of Nablus are quieter than usual.
The typically bustling streets, filled with the sights, smells, and sounds of one of the oldest markets in Palestine, are almost unrecognizable. Most shops and businesses are shuttered; those who are open are noticeably somber, a far cry from the usual animated calls of street vendors advertising their wares to crowds of shoppers passing by.
“This is not common to Nablus,” Abu Ayyad, 72, told Mondoweiss as he sat inside his shop, packaging halkoum sweets — a Nabulsi version of Turkish Delight which he has been making and selling from his shop in Al-Yasmina neighborhood for over 60 years.
Bullet holes riddle the old stone buildings and the rusting iron doors that line the streets. Some of the destruction dates back to the first and second Intifadas. But the newer cars parked along the cobblestone streets, covered in bullet holes and broken glass, remind passersby of the freshness of these wounds.
“What’s happening now in Nablus reminds me of the level of destruction that happened in 2002 when the Israeli forces invaded Nablus,” Sameh Abdo, 52, a resident of the Old City told Mondoweiss as he passed through the narrow alleyways of Al-Yasmina quarter.
“The destruction of the city, the homes, the buildings. We haven’t seen this type of devastation in years,” he said.
Down the road, one man sits outside his shop, piled with old radios, speakers, and other odds and ends. He smokes his cigarette in silence, soaking in the words of the song blasting on one of the newer speakers in his collection. It’s an anthem dedicated to lions.
There are little to no foreigners present, a new reality created by design, not by accident. The presence of anyone or anything unknown to the locals here is considered a potential threat, and understandably so.
Over the past few months the residents of the Old City have grown increasingly wary and suspicious of any foreign presence in their streets. Too many times, undercover Israeli forces entered the city in disguise, after the blood of the young men who have made these streets their home.
Such was the case on Monday, October 25, just after midnight. The streets were quiet, and in the cover of night, Israeli undercover special forces entered the boundaries of the city. Their targets were a group of young men, armed and ready in their hideout in the al-Yasmina quarter of the Old City, but seemingly unaware of the danger that lurked around the corner.
They call themselves the “Lions’ Den”, Areen al-Usud in Arabic. A novel armed resistance group, relatively unknown outside of Nablus until a few months ago, the young fighters have gained hero-like status across Palestine.
In the streets of Nablus’ Old City, however, the lions are more than just mythical heroes. They are the brothers, sons, and friends of the people here. They are people’s neighbors — neighbors who watched them grow up, once kids buying snacks from the shop down the road, and causing a ruckus with the other neighborhood kids.
Now those cubs are lions, and they have taken it upon themselves to do something many believed to be impossible after decades under the boot of the Israeli occupation and its partners in the Palestinian Authority: reviving popular armed resistance.
The origin story
The emergence of the Lions’ Den into the Palestinian public consciousness can be traced back to the summer, when a stoic, narrow-faced and handsome young man cut through a crowd of thousands of people in the middle of the city of Nablus — his rifle in his right hand, the casket of his friend on his left.
As he marched through the crowd in the funeral procession for his fallen comrades, passersby saluted the young man. In a viral video, one man struggles to grab his hand, still wrapped tightly around his rifle, and kisses it. The young man’s face did not flinch.
The young man was Ibrahim al-Nabulsi, just 18 years old at the time. Known locally as the “Lion of Nablus,” with a mysterious reputation as a fierce fighter who had managed to evade several arrest and assassination attempts by the Israelis, the young Al-Nabulsi skyrocketed into popular fame and admiration after his showing at the funeral.
At the time, Nabulsi and his comrades were part of a group who called themselves the Nablus Brigades, Katibet Nablus in Arabic, operating out of the Old City. They had been active for months, conducting shooting operations across the northern West Bank.
Modeled after the Jenin Brigades to the north, the group was formed in early 2022, and was comprised primarily of young men formerly aligned with the Saraya al-Quds (Al Quds Brigades), the armed wing of the Islamic Jihad movement.
But many of the group’s members and leaders hailed from different political factions. Nabulsi had formerly aligned himself with the Fatah movement; others had origins with Hamas, and even the leftist Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
Like the Jenin Brigades, the Nablus Brigades were cross-factional, and while they had money coming in from various sources, they did not officially align themselves with one political party. They were fighting in the name of Palestine, and no one else.
The Israeli government’s first major operation targeting the Nablus Brigades happened in February, when Israeli special forces raided Nablus and ambushed a vehicle, showering it with bullets and extra-judicially assassinating three Palestinian resistance fighters which Israel claimed were wanted.
The three were Ashraf Mubaslat, Adham Mabrouka and Mohammad Dakhil. There was a fourth passenger — some reports said he was injured and arrested by the army, others said he managed to escape. Many speculated him to be Al-Nabulsi.
At the time, Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade (the military wing of Fatah) claimed the three as its members. But they had recently broken off from Fatah, carrying out a number of shooting operations across Nablus in another name. Israeli defense officials were describing them as a “renegade” cell.
Around the same time, Israel’s military apparatus launched Operation Break the Wave, an open-ended massive operation across the occupied West Bank to “thwart terrorism activities,” and growing armed resistance in Jenin and Nablus.
In April, Israeli army chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi, warned: “Our mission is simple—we need to stop terrorism and to restore safety and a sense of security. We will do whatever it takes, whatever is necessary, for however long and wherever needed, until both safety and the sense of security are restored.”
Yet despite the increase of deadly Israeli military raids in Nablus and Jenin, the number of operations and armed resistance activities, whether through organized groups or independently, continued to rise. Rather than break the wave, Operation Break the Wave seemed only to be conjuring a tsunami.
At the end of July, months after Operation Break the Wave began, the Israeli army launched a massive raid on the al-Yasmina neighborhood in the Old City of Nablus. It was the first time since 2002 that the army was conducting a raid in the area, targeting who they said were Palestinians suspected of carrying out a shooting operation targeting Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers as they raided Joseph’s Tomb a month before.
During the raid, resistance fighters fired heavily at Israeli forces, as they barricaded themselves inside the home of Mohammad al-Azizi, who is widely known to be the founder of the Lions’ Den. Israeli forces surrounded the home, bombarding it with explosives and gunfire, overpowering the fighters inside.
After a three-hour shootout, Mohammad al-Azizi, 25, and Aboud Suboh, 28, were killed in the raid, as they reportedly provided cover for their fellow comrades to escape. Israeli media reported that one of the primary targets of the raid, Al-Nabulsi, had evaded capture once again.
While both al-Azizi and Suboh were claimed as members of Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, locally they were known to be some of the earliest members of the Nablus Brigades. It was at their funeral on July 24 that Al-Nabulsi, donning a flak jacket and his rifle, paid tribute to his fallen comrades, further propelling his status as an icon in the city.
Across the West Bank, Palestinians circulated videos and photos of Al-Nabulsi at the funeral. Suddenly, the Lion of Nablus and the group he fought with were becoming household names outside the bounds of their city.
It was only two weeks later that Al-Nabulsi would meet the same fate as his fellow fighters. During a raid on the Old City on August 9, Al-Nabulsi was killed while fighting the Israeli army. Two other members of the brigades who were fighting alongside Nabulsi were killed during the raid: Islam Sbuh, 32, and Hussein Jamal Taha, 16.
In a voice message shared widely on Palestinian social media, purportedly recorded by Al-Nabulsi and sent to his comrades shortly before he was killed, a calm and collected Al-Nabulsi can be heard saying:
“I love you so much. If I am martyred, guys, I love my mother. Take care of the homeland after I’m gone, and my final will to you, on your honor: don’t let go of the rifle — on your honor. I’m surrounded, and I am going towards my martyrdom.”
In his death, the Lion of Nablus was solidified as an icon, and the group he fought with became firmly implanted in the public consciousness. Following the killing of Al-Nabulsi, the Den of Lions, now void of its founder and first fighters, began appealing to the public for protection.
Two weeks after the killing of Al-Nabulsi, a new Telegram channel was created alongside a photo of Mohammad al-Azizi and Aboud Suboh holding up their rifles. Overlaid on top of the photograph was a new logo, reminiscent of the symbols used to represent the Fatah and Islamic Jihad armed wings. But this new symbol, showing the Dome of the Rock sitting underneath two crossed rifles, alongside an icon of an armed fighter in the middle of a map of Palestine, did not belong to any of the established political factions.
Plastered across a black banner was the name of the group in Arabic, underneath it a short line of text that read: “The official representative channel of the Lions’ Den.”
On September 2, in a memorial for Al-Azizi and Suboh, the Lions’ Den made their first official appearance as a group in the Old City, drawing crowds of thousands. A militant from the group, clad in black military gear from head to toe, face covered in a black balaclava and sporting a black bucket hat, stood on the stage facing the throngs of people. Flanked by fighters with upraised weapons on either side, he read out the charter of the Lions’ Den.
“We salute those who have walked in the footsteps of al-Yasser and Yassin and Abu Ali Mustafa and Shikaki,” he said, referring, respectively, to the Fatah founder and late President, Yasser Arafat, the Hamas founder, Shaikh Ahmad Yassin, and the PFLP former Secretary General, Abu Ali Mustafa. “We have come here today, 40 days after the death of the Den’s lions, and in light of the burning revolution of our people in Jerusalem, in Gaza, in Jeningrad [Arafat’s Second Intifada-era stylization of Jenin after Stalingrad]…we have come to tell you that the spark began in the Old City [of Nablus] when our leader Abu Ammar formed the first cells of the revolution in Al-Yasmina neighborhood [during the Second Intifada].”
The charter went on to preach a message of independent resistance, free of the shackles of the old political factions. They vowed to continue to conduct operations across the West Bank targeting Israeli army positions and settlers. They addressed the PA security forces, who have a thorny history with armed groups in the Old City of Nablus, emphasizing that the group’s focus was confronting the Israeli occupation, not the PA.
In the following weeks, the group announced that it had conducted dozens of operations targeting Israeli army and settler positions across the West Bank, primarily in the Nablus area. On October 11, the den claimed responsibility for a shooting operation that left one Israeli soldier dead near the illegal Shave Shomron settlement in the Nablus district.
As the group stepped up their operations, the popularity of the Lions’ Den continued to soar. Over the course of two months, the group amassed hundreds of thousands of followers on platforms like Telegram, with their official channel boasting over 230,000 followers — more than any other Palestinian political faction. On TikTok, montages of the group’s fallen fighters cut together to the tune of the Lions’ Den anthem flooded fan accounts dedicated to the group.
While social media can often feel disconnected from the real world, the popularity of the Lions’ Den online was even more tangible in the streets than it is online.
In the alleyways of Al-Yasmina neighborhood, just one day after the October 25 raid that killed three members of the group, including senior fighter Wadee al-Hawah, young Palestinians from outside the city crowd the alleyways.
Some young folks eagerly ask shopkeepers where the home of the “hero martyr” Al-Hawah is. A man points up to a crumbling facade of an old stone second-floor home. The youth ask if they can go up to the house, but they’re stopped by a group of stoic young men blocking the entrance at the door. So they pull out their phones instead, joining crowds of passersby taking photos of the home where the Lions’ Den leader was killed.
A few steps down the road, a woman salutes to a memorial for the slain fighter Tamer al-Kilani, who was assassinated on October 23 in the same spot where photos of him now lay, adorned with Palestinian flags. Another young mother tells her son to stand in front of the memorial to take a photo.
“Salute him, dear,” she says, as the young boy raises his right hand to his forehead.
Back down the road, outside the old radio repair shop, Jamal Hamou, 57, turns up the speakers blasting the Lions’ Den anthem. When asked what he thought of the group, he beat his fist to his chest, over his heart, a wide grin spreading across his face.
“The Lions’ Den, to the people of the Old City and outside of it, means everything to us,” he said. “These are our sons, our brothers, our boys. They have done something that so many before them tried and failed to do. They represent trustworthiness and honor, and they have made us proud, may God protect them, and bless those who have passed.”
Around the corner from Hamou’s shop, the famous Al-Aqsa Sweets, known across Palestine for its Nablus knafeh, is riddled with bullet holes. Usually packed to the brim with hungry customers, the shop is relatively empty. No one is in the mood for sweets, one of the owners tells Mondoweiss.
“I have worked here since I was five years old. I have lived here my whole life, I was here during the first and second Intifadas,” Basil al-Shantir, whose family owns the shop, told Mondoweiss. “What is happening right now is different. During the intifadas there was much more destruction on a larger scale, but what is happening now is not insignificant,” he said.
“The Lions’ Den is barely a few months old, but they have taken over the public consciousness in a way that is unprecedented.”
A few kilometers outside of the Old City, the day after the deadly raid on the Old City, thousands of Palestinians gathered at the memorial for the “moons of Nablus,” the five Palestinians who were killed.
It was a typical scene for a martyr’s memorial, held for three days after someone is killed by the occupation. Posters of Wadee al-Hawah, Mashaal Baghdadi, Hamdi Qaim, Ali Antar, and Hamdi Sharaf lined the entrance and walls of the local community center where the wake was being held. Family members of the deceased lined up at the door, greeting mourners who had come to pay their respects.
But this memorial was different in one small, but distinguishable regard. It was largely devoid of any symbols marking the political affiliation of the martyrs, a typical feature at the funerals of Palestinian martyrs.
Inside, Mazen Dunbuk, 40, a spokesperson for the Fatah movement in Nablus’ Old City, sat down for lunch, customarily served in honor of the martyrs.
“The funeral of the five martyrs was one of the biggest seen in Palestine in years,” he said. “This is a sign to the [Israeli] occupation, and to the Palestinian leaders, that the public support for these young men is huge,” Dunbuk told Mondoweiss.
Aware of the reputation his political party holds, as the majority part of the increasingly unpopular PA government, Dunbuk said matter-of-factly: “We know that people are tired of the different political factions, they want a united resistance. Nothing is more evident of that than the popularity of the Lions’ Den,” he said.
“Young people are thirsty for resistance, for armed resistance, and for a change of the status quo of the past 20 years,” he said. “And this is what Israel is scared of.”
The threat that the group poses to Israel was evident in the military apparatus’ focus on destroying the group at all costs. In the wake of the October 11 operation that killed one Israeli soldier, the army enforced a more than two-week closure of the entire Nablus district, affecting the lives of more than 400,000 Palestinians.
In the span of just a few days in the last week of October, the army conducted several raids and operations targeting members of the Lions’ Den and their areas of operation. In addition to the targeted assassinations of Al-Kilani and Al-Hawah, several members of the group or those affiliated with them were arrested, including the brother of Ibrahim Al-Nabulsi.
The return of Israel’s use of targeted assassinations against resistance members evoked more memories of the first and second intifada, indicating to locals that the army was ramping up its operations to quash the group.
But while the army has snuffed out the lives of several of the Lions’ Den’s leaders and senior members, what it has so far failed to do is squash the influence that the group has wielded over Palestinians, primarily young people, across the West Bank who have been inspired by their messages of independent resistance, unaffiliated with the political parties of yesterday.
And for Israel, that is where the group’s most dangerous aspect lies.
In terms of actual casualties, the Lions’ Den itself has not claimed a significant number of deaths or injuries of settlers or soldiers. Most of its operations targeting Israeli positions across the West Bank have resulted in some injuries, though not always.
Yet the group’s influence has inspired more “lone-wolf” operations across the West Bank that have proved destructive for Israel. In the nine days since the Israeli military assault on Nablus that killed Al-Hawah, at least six operations were carried out across the West Bank by individual Palestinians not officially affiliated with the Lions’ Den or other armed groups.
In the operations, which targeted both settlers and Israeli military positions, several soldiers were wounded, and even one settler was killed. And most notably, Udai al-Tamimi, a young man from Shu’fat refugee camp, killed an Israeli soldier stationed at the Shu’fat military checkpoint in a drive-by lone wolf shooting, and the massive manhunt that ensued lasted for ten days and put the entire camp under siege, before Al-Tamimi himself came out of hiding and attacked and injured Israeli guards stationed outside the illegal settlement of Ma’ale Adumim — notably far away from where the manhunt’s efforts were focused — before he was shot and killed by the guards.
Separate from the armed operations seemingly inspired by the group, the Lions’ Den has forgone the traditional model of hosting dressed-up press conferences or issuing curated public statements that are filtered through standard media outlets and rendered into soundbites, carving out instead a mode of communication with the broader Palestinian community, using public platforms like Telegram to speak directly to Palestinians, always signing off “your brothers in the Lions’ Den.”
On October 16, almost a week after Israel closed off the city of Nablus, the Lions’ Den appealed to Palestinians for a night of disruption, inviting people from across the West Bank to shout from their rooftops and make noise in the streets in response to reports in the Israeli media about army promises to “finish off” the armed group “from the root.”
“To all citizens, to our fathers, mothers, siblings, and children,” the statement read. “Come out tonight on the rooftops at exactly 12:30 a.m. Let us hear your cheers of Allahu Akbar [God is Great]. We want the last sound we hear to be your voices,” the group wrote.
And Palestinians responded to the call: from Nablus, and extending to Ramallah, Tulkarem, Hebron, and Jerusalem.
On October 12, one day before leaders of rival Palestinian factions met in Algiers for reconciliation talks and promises of presidential and parliamentary elections — which have failed to materialize for over a decade — the Lions’ Den called on all Palestinians to strike in solidarity with the then-besieged Shu’fat Refugee Camp. Despite the fact that no official factions, which usually declare strikes, were involved, Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank remarkably heeded the call, and observed a strike that day.
On the same day, the Lions’ Den released a statement, reaffirming that the group did not belong to any political party, and had “turned its back on all disputes and rivalries.
“The fact that they are independent is drawing more youth in, and Israel knows that the danger of the group lies in their political independence,” Basel al-Shantir told Mondoweiss outside his knafeh shop in the Old City. “Because when you do not belong to an official party, you cannot be pressured or blackmailed into bad deals and watered-down agreements.”
Back at the memorial for the five martyrs killed on the 25th, a young man sits solemnly in the corner of a quiet room. He identifies himself as a member of the Lions’ Den.
“Wadee and the others have done something, they’ve created something that the Palestinian political factions have been unsuccessful in doing for decades,” the young man, who requested anonymity, told Mondoweiss.
“They brought people together, to create one united resistance, without political factions,” the young man continued. “Entire nations have tried to do this and failed.”
When asked why he and other young men were inspired to take up arms, he said: “we are under occupation, and this occupation is killing us everyday.
Al-Wadee and the others woke up every day to news of more martyrs, more settler attacks, and more of our homeland being stolen.”
“When we fight we are demanding our dignity, something our own government has failed to do for 30 years.”
The role of the PA
On the night of October 26, shortly after the first day of the memorial for the five martyrs in Nablus came to a close, news broke that four members of the Lions’ Den had turned themselves over the Palestinian Authority Security Forces (PASF).
One of the men, Mahmoud al-Bana, a top commander in the Lions’ Den who was injured in the raid the night before, wrote a statement on Facebook, addressing the Palestinian people about his decision to hand himself into the PA.
“My comrades were martyred by my side, and I was wounded with them several times, and my martyrdom was declared more than once,” Al-Bana wrote. “By God’s power and kindness, I am alive today.”
“Today, after consulting with my brothers in the struggle, myself and my comrades-in-arms, it was agreed with our brothers in the [Palestinian] security services to surrender ourselves in order to protect us from this brutal occupier,” he said.
As controversy erupted across Palestinian social media over the fighters’ decision to turn themselves in, the Lions’ Den released an official statement, saying that “whoever surrenders himself, this is their decision and choice.”
In another statement the next day, the group said that those who believed the Lions’ Den was disbanding were “living under an illusion.”
But the impact of the fighters’ decisions to hand themselves over to the PA could not be denied, as the streets and the internet buzzed with talk of the future of the Lions’ Den. Would the group survive the next inevitable Israeli attack? Or would there even be a Lions’ Den to fight by that point?
One certainty remained clear: the Israeli government were not the only ones that wanted the Lions’ Den off the streets, and out of the Palestinian public consciousness for good.
In late September, as the Lions’ Den continued to gain popularity in the West Bank and steadily upped their operations, PA security forces raided the city of Nablus in order to arrest two Lions’ Den fighters who were wanted by Israel, Musaab Shtayyeh, 30, and Ameed Tbeileh, 21.
One Palestinian, 55-year-old Firas Yaish, was killed, while several others were injured. The raid sparked fierce confrontations and widespread backlash, as Palestinians criticized the PA’s ongoing security coordination with Israel, and what they viewed as their own government’s attempts to quash Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation.
“For us it’s the battleground, and for them the diplomacy,” a young 20-year-old fighter told Mondoweiss on the evening of September 20, as PA forces clashed with local youth in the city the day after the arrest of Shtayyeh and Tbeileh.
After the September 19 raid and the subsequent public backlash, the PA stayed relatively silent on the subject of the Lions’ Den, opting instead for a policy of quiet neutralization, working behind the scenes to offer fighters of the Lions’ Den amnesty in the ranks of the PASF in exchange for putting down their weapons, and agreeing to serve time in PA prisons.
Similar to the deals struck with former fighters with the armed wing of Fatah after the Second Intifada, the PA was offering these young men safety — safety from the inevitable: imprisonment, or more likely, death, at the hands of the Israelis. And as the Israeli military upped its attacks on the group through targeted assassinations and large-scale raids, the PA’s proposition became even more appealing.
On October 31, a week after al-Bana and three others handed themselves over to the PA, another senior fighter in the Lions’ Den, Mohammad Tabanja, reportedly followed suit. A source within the PA told Mondoweiss that at least a dozen members of the Lions’ Den had already turned themselves over to the PASF. Mondoweiss could not independently confirm that number.
Three days later, in the heart of the Old City, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh held a press conference, surrounded by dozens of journalists and foreign diplomats — a sight the Old City had not witnessed in months.
Shtayyeh’s statements largely addressed Israel’s ongoing occupation of the Palestinian territory, criticizing the “collective punishment” policies imposed on the Palestinian people. While Shtayyeh made no mention of the Lions’ Den or of armed resistance, a second message was clear from his appearance in the Old City: the PA had restored “order” and control to the city, at least on the surface.
As the future of the Lions’ Den hangs in the balance, so does the trajectory of the current Palestinian mobilization. The current moment is defined largely by such groups and the influence they wield, inspiring others to take up arms against the occupation. So it is without a doubt that the future of the group will affect the outcome of the current moment, as well as whether the wave of armed resistance we are witnessing will continue to swell, or slowly subside and fade into the distance.
On November 1, the same day the most right-wing, extremist government in Israeli history was elected into power, the Lions’ Den released their most recent statement.
“The most important thing is to you, and everyone who believes that our fire has subsided: a volcano is brewing.
For those who call for peace, look at their elections and you will see their choices.
As for the resistance fighters from the Lions’ Den, or from the blessed factions, or our lone wolves — strike them everywhere. What kind of life is this, that we live in peace with those who abuse our blood and the blood of our children, men, and sisters?
Your brothers, the Lions’ Den.”
Mariam Barghouti is the Senior Palestine Correspondent for Mondoweiss
Yumna Patel is the Palestine News Director for Mondoweiss