The New Palestinian Resistance
Young militants are ditching old-style factionalism to fight Israel’s occupation.
By Dalia Hatuqa
MARCH 29, 2023, 2:20 PM
RAMALLAH, West Bank—On March 19, representatives from Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority (PA), United States, and Egypt met in the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh in an attempt to address rising violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories. The meeting came ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Jewish holiday of Passover, which overlap this year. The month has traditionally seen an uptick in tensions in the region: during Ramadan in May 2021, Israeli restrictions on Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque compound set off a chain reaction that led to an 11-day Israeli offensive on Gaza; 261 Palestinians were killed, per a United Nations count.
The inauguration of Israel’s most extreme right-wing government in history late last December has only made the situation in the West Bank grimmer. Last month, a Palestinian shooting in the West Bank town of Huwara left two Israeli settlers dead. It was apparent retribution for the Israeli military killing 11 Palestinians and injuring more than 100 in a daytime raid in the city of Nablus just a few days earlier. A mob of settlers responded to the shooting with a deadly rampage that some called a pogrom.
The Sharm el-Sheikh summit, like a similar summit in Jordan’s Red Sea town of Aqaba in February, quickly proved futile; another shooting in Huwara on the same day left an Israeli settler seriously injured.
Then, this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to delay a contentious judicial reform plan that had provoked mass protests among Israelis to the summer session of parliament. In exchange for buy-in from his coalition partner, Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir, Netanyahu agreed to form a new security force that will operate under the direct orders of Ben-Gvir, who has previously been convicted of inciting racism. Some Palestinians fear this step will add fuel to the fire already raging in the West Bank.
For the better part of the year, the PA has proved unable to stem escalating tensions in the occupied territory, and to stop attacks as dictated by its security coordination understanding with Israel. It has also proved unable to eliminate new armed resistance groups that have popped up across the occupied territory in response to liberalized Israeli settlement policies and near-daily killings of Palestinians by the Israeli military. These new armed groups have shed traditional Palestinian factionalism to collaborate in fighting Israel’s occupation—and a PA they view as complicit.
Last March, the Israeli military launched Operation Breakwater, raiding the West Bank on a near daily basis after a wave of Palestinian-perpetrated attacks in Israel. Twelve months later, the violence shows few signs of abating. 2022 ended as the deadliest year on record for West Bank Palestinians since the end of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in 2005—and 2023 is on track to be even more fatal. About 75 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces so far this year; Palestinian fighters have killed 14 Israelis over the same period, according to the U.N.
The high death toll has galvanized a new generation of Palestinian fighters organizing to resist Israeli military raids in their communities. They are hyper-localized—operating in the trenches of refugee camps and old cities—and act in defiance of the PA, which engages in security cooperation with Israel and frequently targets these same groups. The mostly young men hail from across the West Bank, from the sleepy desert city of Jericho to the sprawling northern city of Nablus and the decrepit refugee camp of Jenin. They are often seen toting M16 rifles and wearing balaclavas to avoid being identified.
Traditionally, Palestinian militant groups functioned as the armed wings of political parties, such as Hamas and the PA’s Fatah. A militia’s operations supported its party’s political objectives. But during the second intifada, lone-wolf attacks became more widespread. In the uprising’s aftermath—and under pressure from Israeli intelligence—many traditional groups saw their ranks dwindle and organizational structures collapse. This gave way to a decentralized model of resistance, with small cells and breakaway factions dominating the militant landscape.
Since 2022, fighters from different traditional factions have begun to cooperate under new umbrella groups. Many young men decided to take matters into their own hands after growing up seeing the entrenchment of Israel’s occupation, routine bombing of the Gaza Strip, and growth of Israeli settlements. They are also disillusioned with the PA, whose political strategy has not yielded tangible results during their lifetime.
Nablus’ Lions’ Den and the Jenin Brigade are the largest new groups. But smaller cohorts have also cropped up, like the Balata Brigade in the eponymous refugee camp and the Osh al-Dababir (Hornets’ Nest) Battalion, also in the Jenin camp. Israel—and the PA—are struggling to get a handle on them all.
“The Lions’ Den in Nablus and the Jenin Brigade represent a security threat to Israel[i] forces and settlers living in the West Bank and Jerusalem,” said Khaldoun Barghouti, a Palestinian analyst specializing in Israeli affairs. “Israel fears … the emergence of new copycat groups in other Palestinian cities or refugee camps. This situation could lead to escalation in the West Bank.
West Bank coordination is vital to Mahmoud Abbas’s and the Palestinian Authority’s survival. It’s also hugely unpopular among ordinary Palestinians.
The Lions’ Den has regularly engaged in armed clashes with and shootings of Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank. Last October, the group shot and killed an Israeli soldier in the occupied territory. In February, the Nablus Battalion, Lions’ Den, and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade (the armed wing of Fatah) in Nablus said that their members had shot at Israeli forces raiding the city.
The rise of these groups doesn’t come as a surprise to observers, given the iron fist with which Israel rules the West Bank and the inability of the PA to crack down on these collectives without stirring public ire.
“The Lions’ Den and other formations in West Bank cities are a natural byproduct of 30 years of willful international failure to end the occupation and contentment with a PA that does what it is told,” said Nour Odeh, a former PA government spokeswoman. “They are also a natural response to the rise of racist fascist parties in Israel whose agenda threatens the existence of the Palestinian people.”
Israel’s new government is the most conservative, right-wing, and nationalist in its history. Since it came to power in late December 2022, a member of Netanyahu’s governing coalition has done or said something that breaks with even Israeli policy norms on an almost weekly basis. Netanyahu’s temporarily suspended efforts to overhaul the state’s judiciary and consolidate power have also created a schism within Israeli society, prompting mass protests and even straining relations with longtime allies.
The PA is unable and unwilling to do anything to respond to the new Israeli government’s constant deluge of anti-Palestinian actions and rhetoric. It broke off security coordination with Israel after the deadly Nablus raid in February, only to reinstate it shortly thereafter. Palestine and PA President Mahmoud Abbas, now 88, is widely seen as unfit for office but has a coterie of Israel- and United States-approved aides who keep the status quo running.
Following the second intifada, the PA integrated senior al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade members into its formal security apparatus as part of a disarmament and demobilization program, allowing the group to maintain some control on the street level. However, the PA’s security forces seem unable to control violence on the ground any longer—and are finding themselves bystanders to a new conflict raging before their eyes.
There have been spikes in violence across the West Bank since the second intifada. The difference today is that the new armed groups have blurred the lines of Palestinian politics’ traditional factionalism by working across longtime divides. Newer militias such as the Lions’ Den, for example, comprise men who are affiliated with Hamas, Fatah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The militias linked to these factions used to act independently to claim credit for military operations and gain credibility with the Palestinian public.
The shooter who killed two Israeli settlers on Huwara’s main road in February was a Hamas member from Nablus. But he chose to hide out in the Jenin refugee camp, where he was sheltered by fighters from al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.
This fluidity has proved frustrating for Israel, as it makes it more difficult for its military to strike preemptively. “When armed groups are proliferating and when it comes to the fact that they … do not have a clear political platform, that’s a problem for Israel because [Israel] always want[s] to have an address,” said Mairav Zonszein, a senior analyst on Israel and Palestine with the International Crisis Group. “[Israel] want[s] to know who to blame, who is responsible.”
Many Palestinians now see traditional political factions as a burden, either because they view them as ineffective or because they are active participants in—and beneficiaries of—political divisions upheld by Israeli and U.S. political interests.
According to a recent opinion poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, a growing percentage of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza—58 percent—support a return to armed confrontations and intifada against Israel. With Israel’s lurch to the right, increasing deadly Israeli raids on Palestinian population centers, and the absence of a political solution to the occupation, Palestinians are looking for alternatives to the “wait and see” status quo upheld by the PA.
In the same survey, more than 70 percent of West Bank Palestinians said they supported the first Huwara shooting attack that left two Israeli settlers dead, while two-thirds supported forming new armed groups that do not take orders from the PA, such as the Jenin Battalion or the Lions’ Den. Support for these new, independent groups is seen as an outgrowth of the Palestinian public’s growing mistrust of the PA and hopelessness about the prospect of a political solution to the occupation.
“Public support for armed resistance is further confirmed by overwhelming opposition to the Palestinian participation in the Aqaba meeting,” the poll’s authors wrote. “A large majority, standing at 70 [percent], think Israeli counter measures, which are meant to punish those who commit armed attacks or their families, such as home demolitions, expulsion, or the imposition of the death penalty, will only lead to an increase in the intensity of such attacks.”
Israel’s attempts to clamp down on the new armed groups seem to have bolstered the groups’ popularity among Palestinians even further. Despite their relatively modest means, the militias have already secured the trust of the Palestinian street. In recent weeks, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have responded to militias’ calls for protests in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip—and even in the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon. When the groups independently called for full-scale commercial closures in cities such as Jenin, Nablus, and Ramallah, people complied—undermining the PA by positioning it as corrupt and weak.
The violence in the West Bank seems unlikely to abate, as Israeli raids on Palestinian cities continue and Palestinian casualty numbers rise. Israeli settlers continue to commit violent rampages against Palestinians with impunity, emboldened by their new political leadership. The fact that the PA is unable to protect its own citizens but collaborates with Israel on security has effectively evaporated what little respect and trust it still enjoyed.
“Israel is aware of the crisis in the PA, and it would obviously prefer not to have to do all those raids, but it’s an endless cycle in which it does so and the PA loses even more legitimacy,” Zonszein said. “None of these armed groups are listening to the PA anyway.”