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Analysis

Alleged assassination in Nablus may signal major Israeli policy change in West Bank

Death of Lion’s Den member bears hallmarks of attacks previously attributed to Israel, with officials similarly mum on reports

Emanuel Fabian

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Palestinians gather around a motorcycle, that was reportedly used to kill Tamer al-Kilani, in the old city of Nablus, on October 23, 2022. (JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP)
Palestinians gather around a motorcycle, that was reportedly used to kill Tamer al-Kilani, in the old city of Nablus, on October 23, 2022. (JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP)

The early Sunday morning death of a senior member of a loosely organized Palestinian terror group known as Lion’s Den in an explosion in the West Bank city of Nablus would be an almost unprecedented action by Israel, if it was indeed behind the killing.

Tamer Kilani, a member of the upstart organization — which has claimed near-nightly attacks on Israeli troops and civilians during a crackdown on Nablus — was killed at approximately 1:30 a.m. when an explosive device attached to a motorcycle detonated in Nablus’s Old City, according to the group and Palestinian media reports.

In a statement, Lion’s Den claimed that Israeli forces planted the bomb, with footage showing the moment of the blast and another clip purporting to show an Israeli “collaborator” placing the booby-trapped motorcycle in the area.

The Israel Defense Forces did not comment on the explosion and Kilani’s death, but a defense official provided military reporters with details about the slain man.

Kilani, previously jailed in Israel, was directly involved in sending a Palestinian man to attempt to commit a “large-scale” attack in Tel Aviv last month, among several more shooting attacks in the Nablus area.

The killing, if Israel was behind it, would mark a dramatic change in Israeli policy with regard to its anti-terror operations in the West Bank.

In recent years, Israeli forces have shot and killed Palestinians identified by the defense establishment as “ticking time bombs.” Meaning, terrorists who were allegedly en route to committing an attack or planning an imminent one.

Israeli officials say forces first attempt to arrest such Palestinians, but those operations, often deep within Palestinian cities, usually result in a fierce gun battle between the sides, with the wanted men dead.

The IDF has previously targeted Lion’s Den members with similar methods. In one such case, members of the group allegedly en route to committing an attack against an Israeli settlement near Nablus were ambushed by Israeli troops. One member of the group was killed in the ensuing gunfight.

In the past, mostly during the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, Israel used attack helicopters in the West Bank against Palestinian targets, but only in special circumstances and not as a matter of course.

Military chief Aviv Kohavi recently greenlit the use of armed drones in West Bank operations, if needed, though since the approval in early September, there has been no use of them yet.

The unusual bombing in Nablus was reminiscent of assassinations of Iranian scientists that have been attributed to Israel, such as the 2010 killing of Masoud Ali Mohammadi, an Iranian nuclear scientist who was reportedly killed when a remote-control bomb rigged to a motorcycle was parked outside his home in Tehran.

Similar to assassinations attributed to Israel in Iran, Israeli officials are neither confirming nor denying involvement in the Nablus bombing.

Members of Lion’s Den are seen in Nablus in an image published by the armed faction on September 3, 2022. (Courtesy; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

The only similar alleged bombing assassination in the West Bank goes back to 2002, when Raed al-Karmi, a Tanzim commander accused of several deadly attacks and planning more, was killed in an explosion attributed to Israel near his home in the city of Tulkarem.

Tensions in the Nablus area have ratcheted up in recent weeks, with Israel’s military placing a cordon around the Palestinian city to crack down on Lion’s Den.

Lion’s Den has claimed responsibility for the majority of shooting attacks in the Nablus area since it was formed in August by members of various terror groups, including people previously affiliated with the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, among others.

One Israeli soldier was killed in an attack by the group and a second person was lightly injured in a separate assault on civilian vehicles. The other attacks have been ineffectual, but videos of the shootings uploaded to social media have helped it win it massive popularity on the Palestinian street in a short period of time.

An anti-terror offensive launched earlier this year and focused on the northern West Bank has netted more than 2,000 arrests in near-nightly raids. It has also left over 120 Palestinians dead, many of them — but not all — while carrying out attacks or during clashes with security forces.

Israeli security forces deploy on the roof of a Palestinian home during a search of Salem near the West Bank city of Nablus, following a shooting attack claimed by the Lion’s Den faction, October 2, 2022. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

The operation was launched following a series of Palestinian attacks that killed 19 people earlier this year. Another Israeli was killed in a suspected attack last month, and four soldiers have been killed in the West Bank in attacks and during the arrest operations.

Lion’s Den has been in Israel’s crosshairs during the recent uptick in shooting attacks in the Nablus area, which have mostly been claimed by the group.

In a special security assessment held last week, Prime Minister Yair Lapid and top defense officials discussed further actions that could potentially be taken against the group, if attacks persist.

It had not said what potential steps against Lion’s Den were discussed or approved in the meeting, but it may have included Sunday’s bombing, if Israel was indeed behind it.

Lion’s Den, meanwhile, has threatened a “painful response” over the killing, and in general has vowed to keep up its attacks, which it views as a struggle against Israel’s presence in the Nablus area.

That presence does not appear to be ending any time soon, with defense officials vowing to maintain the closure on Nablus, now in its 12th day, and continue to act against the group, which has been labeled by Israel a “terror squad.”

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