Smothered by Israeli occupation, a new generation of militant Palestinians is taking up the fight

A poster depicting slain members of a militant group known as the Lion's Den is displayed on the window of a barber shop in the old city of Nablus in the West Bank.  (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC - photo credit)

A poster depicting slain members of a militant group known as the Lion’s Den is displayed on the window of a barber shop in the old city of Nablus in the West Bank. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC – photo credit)

Amid the maze of covered markets and ancient stone streets of Nablus’s old town, music emanates from a barber shop.

The melody takes the melody of an old Palestinian folk song and adapts it for much darker times. The lyrics glorify the deaths of those who resisted Israeli occupation, including “Wadee the Lion,” who is said to have lived “with his hand on the trigger.”

“Wadee” is Wadee al-Houh, one of the former leaders of a rising group of young Palestinian militants known as “The Lion’s Den”.

Al-Houh was 31 years old when he and four other members of the Lion’s Den militia were killed in an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) raid on his home in October 2022. The apartment where the attack took place is just across the narrow lane of the West Bank barber shops.

Stephanie Jenzer/CBC

Stephanie Jenzer/CBC

Sitting in the chair and having his beard trimmed, 30-year-old Mohammed says al-Houh’s death has made him a revered figure in Nablus and beyond. He also says that the lion’s den, which al-Houh helped found, quickly grew in strength and popularity.

“Here, the people are supporting the lions’ den, not the Palestinian Authority,” Mohammed told CBC News. “And its popularity is such that people of all generations support it.”

In less than a year, Lions’ Den has emerged as one of the most prominent new militant groups changing the nature and intensity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel has blamed the group’s violent crackdown – which the IDF says includes multiple killings, ambushes and improvised explosive device attacks on its forces – for a huge spike in civilian and military casualties on both sides over the past year.

While Israeli soldiers are the group’s primary target, militias like the Lion’s Den also pose a serious political challenge to the legitimacy of the Palestinian leadership.

A history of many factions

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is now 87, and his decades-long call for a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is fading with a frustrated new generation.

The Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza have traditionally been ruled by several major Palestinian factions – groups like Fatah, which controls the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.

Ronaldo Schmidt/Pool via Reuters

Ronaldo Schmidt/Pool via Reuters

What distinguishes the lion’s den and other new, independent militias is that they eschew traditional sectarian labels.

“They are with us at our funerals. They are with us at our weddings. They’re there for us all the time,” said Mohammed, the barber shop’s customer, underscoring the group’s ability to appeal to a notoriously divided population.

Around the corner from the barber shop, the flag of the Lion’s Den – depicting Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque flanked by two machine guns – hangs from old wooden beams. Photos and posters of armed members who have since died, including al-Houh, are posted on doors and walls.

Outside the door of al-Houh’s former home, which is now padlocked, CBC News met three teenagers who said they were drawn to the site because of what the lion’s den stands for.

CBC News does not identify her because of her age and for her own safety.

Raneen Sawafta/Reuters

Raneen Sawafta/Reuters

“Look at what the Israeli occupation is doing. It’s killing us,” said a 16-year-old as he tried to explain why the lion’s den held such an attraction for his generation.

“I sit here and feel [al-Houh]. I want to speak to him. He had love and passion for Palestine, for the homeland.”

The young man said the Palestinian leadership’s commitment to non-violence and negotiations with Israel had nothing to prove.

“If the [Palestinian Authority] had cooperated with the lions’ den, Palestine would have been liberated by now,” he said.

The teenager said he intended to join the group and his parents had given their consent.

“For the sake of my country I will do this.”

CLOCK | Why independent militias are gaining support in the West Bank:

“A State of Despair”

In an interview with CBC News, Palestinian Authority spokesman Sabri Saidam shifted blame for the rise of the new militias to Israeli occupation policies.

“It is associated with a state of despair, the continuation of aggression and the impossible trail of finding any solution or hope amidst all the rubble,” Saidam said.

However, he agreed with the assessment that the dynamic had become extremely combustible.

“The conflict is going through one of its ugliest waves yet, in my opinion,” Saidam said.

Two days after our visit, violence erupted again in Nablus, with 57 people injured in clashes with the IDF.

In a social media post, the lion’s den claimed it attacked Israeli soldiers. In its own statement, the IDF says its troops defended themselves with live fire against homemade explosives.

Raneen Sawafta/Reuters

Raneen Sawafta/Reuters

This week’s raid followed a much larger and deadlier one in Nablus in late February that killed 11 Palestinians and wounded more than 100.

The IDF claims that seven militants – including members of the Lion’s Den – were killed, including one involved in the shooting dead of an Israeli sergeant in October. Four Palestinian civilians were among those killed.

In an interview at the IDF Communications Headquarters in Tel Aviv, Lt.-Col. Richard Hecht said the fact that such groups are loosely organized and not tied to traditional factions makes them more difficult to counter.

“There’s no ecosystem that you have with Islamic Jihad or Hamas and that’s very challenging,” Hecht said. Groups like the lion’s den will “just go out and try to cause chaos and damage and kill as many soldiers as possible”.

Hecht says membership in such groups tends to be fluid, with frequent joining and leaving, which is why the IDF has instead used raids like the recent one in Nablus to go after identifiable leaders.

Adrian Di Virgilio/CBC

Adrian Di Virgilio/CBC

He said their own estimates suggest the membership for The Lion’s Den is between 20 and 60 members at any given time. However, he emphasizes that this is just one of several groups the IDF is concerned about.

“About six months ago we had [the Lions’ Den] decapitated. Now we are seeing another surge again as just before Ramadan these conditions are looking like a perfect storm [for more violence]’ said Hecht.

Clashes almost every day

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins on March 23 and coincides this year with the eight days of the Jewish Passover, beginning on the evening of April 5.

It’s been a particularly rough year. The Palestinian Health Authority says at least 88 Palestinians have been killed so far this year, while the IDF says attacks by militants have killed 14, with clashes now occurring almost daily.

Palestinian leaders are attributing the violence not to the militants but to the actions of Israel’s new ultra-conservative government, which is pursuing an aggressive approach to expanding Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Stephanie Jenzer/CBC

Stephanie Jenzer/CBC

At least four Palestinians, including a teenager, were killed in an Israeli army raid in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin on Thursday.

The clashes between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were particularly violent. On February 26, after a Palestinian shot dead two Israeli brothers in their car on the main street in Huwara, an angry mob of settlers rampaged through the city, setting Palestinian homes and businesses on fire.

Subsequently, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich suggested Israel “wipe out” the city, a remark he later recanted.

Days later, a 21-year-old Palestinian man was shot dead by an Israeli settler after the settler claimed the man had come onto his property and tried to plant a bomb. The young man’s family denies this and says the settler was the attacker.

Last weekend, three young Palestinians, aged 18, 22 and 24, who were allegedly from the lion’s den, were shot dead after the Israeli military said they had automatic weapons and were planning an ambush at a checkpoint near the city Sarra, outside Nablus.

The dried blood at the spot where they were killed was still visible when CBC News visited the site a day later.

Stephanie Jenzer/CBC

Stephanie Jenzer/CBC

People in Sarra who stopped by to pay their respects expressed a mixture of emotions at the deaths.

Palestinians win

The father of one family said he supports the lions’ den but would not speak further about their tactics as he has a job in Israel and saying anything would endanger him.

Indeed, the Palestinian Authority says many people fear a further uptick in violence will lead to restrictions on movement and a ban on travel to Israel, which could cause economic disaster in West Bank communities.

Stephanie Jenzer/CBC

Stephanie Jenzer/CBC

Sarra Mayor Mohammed Turabi told CBC he is “independent” and not affiliated with Fatah, the largest faction that makes up the Palestinian Authority. But he also said he’s torn by groups like the Lion’s Den.

“We’re very proud of our young men and we’re very proud of what they’ve done, despite the fact that I sometimes disagree with the way it’s being carried out,” he said. “These young men have won the respect, trust and pride of the people because they have stepped out of factional conflict… about power, about prestige. That’s why people respect them.”

Twice, in the 1980s and again in the early 2000s, the Palestinians rose up in a society-wide effort known as the Intifada to fight Israeli occupation.

The question that worries many in Israel and the occupied West Bank is whether the wave of violence ignited by the young militants could mark the beginning of a third such uprising.


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