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Analysis

Armed upstart Lion’s Den challenges IDF bid to crack down on Nablus terror

Israel has imposed a tight collar around West Bank city to quell the violent new Palestinian group, which has won popularity with a spate of brazen shootings, social media savvy

Emanuel Fabian

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

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)
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)

Israel over the past week has imposed harsh sanctions on the northern West Bank city of Nablus in an attempt to curb a wave of shootings by an armed faction of young Palestinian men. While this strategy has proved somewhat effective, the gunmen have vowed to continue their brazen attacks.

The armed faction, which calls itself “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 time.

The group, based in Nablus’s Old City, is believed to consist of several dozen members, mostly young, secular men, who eschew any proper hierarchy, unlike other armed factions in the West Bank. Israeli officials have labeled them as a “terror squad.”

While most other unorganized popular resistance involves attacking troops conducting operations inside Palestinian cities, Lion’s Den members do not wait for troops to come to them, instead heading outside of the Nablus Old City on an almost nightly basis and attacking Israeli targets in the area, before managing to flee back unscathed, almost every time.

Lion’s Den members have targeted military posts, troops conducting routine security patrols in the West Bank, Israeli settlements and civilians on the roads.

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, Oct. 2, 2022. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

Some of the attacks have been filmed by members of the group and uploaded to social media, where the group gained a mass following and support among young Palestinians.

The Israeli government last week managed to get the TikTok video-sharing platform to ban an account tied to the group. But on the Telegram messaging service, a Lion’s Den account has over 130,000 subscribers, more than Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s 90,000 and nearly as many as the well-established Hamas terror group, which has 180,000 subscribers to a channel run by its military wing.

The group appears to have formed shortly after the death of wanted Palestinian gunman Ibrahim Nabulsi, who was killed during an Israeli raid in Nablus in August.

Israeli officials identified Nabulsi as a member of an Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades cell that committed a series of shooting attacks earlier this year. Three members of the cell were killed by Israeli troops in February.

The group carried out numerous attacks in the Nablus area, largely without serious injuries aside from an October 2 attack on several civilian vehicles that lightly injured an Israeli man.

Nine days later, Lion’s Den claimed responsibility, without providing any evidence, for an attack that killed Staff Sgt. Ido Baruch on October 11. Baruch, 21, an infantry soldier of the Givati brigade’s reconnaissance unit, was securing a march organized by settlers near the Palestinian town of Sebastia. The march was being held in protest of the recent spate of shooting attacks.

Staff Sgt. Ido Baruch, 21, killed in a shooting attack in the West Bank on October 11, 2022, in an undated photo released by the military. (Israel Defense Forces)

Following the killing of Baruch, Israel imposed a closure on Nablus, a city of over 150,000.

Only three routes have been left partially open, through which Palestinians may enter and leave Nablus following “a strict security check” by the Israeli military. Footage published online has shown massive traffic jams in the area.

Israeli defense officials say the closure on the Palestinian city will remain as long as necessary. Thus far, the roadblocks appear to have helped curtail the number of shootings in the area.

Israeli soldiers block the entrance and exit for cars near the West Bank city of Nablus, on October 17, 2022,(Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

The shootings have not totally stopped, though. On Sunday, despite the closures, Lion’s Den claimed responsibility for an attack on Israeli troops near Nablus.

According to the Israel Defense Forces, Palestinians hurled an explosive device from a passing vehicle at troops. Soldiers returned fire at the car and the suspects fled. The IDF said troops found another IED as they searched the abandoned vehicle, and moments later, gunfire was again directed at troops, who shot back in response.

The pressure on Nablus has not been limited to just the closure. Israel on Sunday also revoked entry permits to Israel for 164 relatives of armed Palestinians in the city, including members of Lion’s Den.

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

Palestinian gunmen attend the funeral for Ibrahim Nabulsi and two others killed in the West Bank city of Nablus, August 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

It has not said what potential steps against Lion’s Den were discussed or approved in Sunday’s meeting or when they might be implemented.

It may come sooner rather than later, with Lion’s Den vowing to keep up its attacks, which it views as a struggle against Israel’s presence in the Nablus area.

For now, Israeli officials say the military will continue individual operations against wanted Palestinians suspected of involvement in terror activities, part of a months-long operation that began following a series of deadly terror attacks earlier this year.

Israeli troops arrest a wanted Palestinian in the West Bank, October 3, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

The offensive has netted more than 2,000 arrests during near-nightly raids in Palestinian cities, towns and villages. It has also left around 100 Palestinians dead, many of them while carrying out attacks or during clashes with security forces.

The northern West Bank, including the areas around Nablus and Jenin, a city that has long been a bastion of armed struggle against Israel, have been focal points in the raids.

The Palestinian Authority has less of a foothold in both cities and is viewed with deep suspicion because of its security ties to Israel, which initially pressured Ramallah to act against Lion’s Den.

Last month, the PA’s security forces arrested two Hamas men wanted by Israel, one of whom has been tied to Lion’s Den through Nabulsi. Musab Shtayyeh is believed by Israel to have picked up duties from Nabulsi, which include financing and logistical support to armed men in Nablus, including members of Lion’s Den.

Ibrahim Nabulsi (L) and Musab Shtayyeh in an undated photo (Courtesy)

The arrests sparked major clashes between the PA and Nablus gunmen at a level of intensity rarely seen and usually reserved for protests against Israeli troops. After a day, the sides came to an agreement, which included the PA agreeing to cease arresting suspects wanted by Israel in the city, unless they break Palestinian law.

The agreement means the bulk of the work of suppressing Lion’s Den will be left in Israel’s hands. Indeed on Tuesday, Israel announced that Shtayyeh’s younger brother, Suhaib, had been arrested in an undercover raid in the Nablus-area town of Salem.

A Border Police spokesman identified him as a member of Lion’s Den.

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