The Lions’ Den terrorist group, operating in Nablus and surrounding villages, has rehabilitated itself in recent months, as new members have joined its ranks. It continues its terrorist attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians, and poses a security challenge to both the Palestinian Authority and Israel.
Lions’ Den began operating in August 2022, after the Jenin Battalion terrorist group was established in Jenin. Its establishment was also a result of the Israeli military operation in Gaza in May 2021, the weakening of the P.A. and the lack of a political horizon for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel’s security forces continue intensive activity to thwart attacks by Lions’ Den members.
P.A. security forces have failed to act against the group, under orders of P.A. chairman Mahmoud Abbas, as long as it did not endanger his rule. To date, Israeli security forces have killed more than 20 members, but the group has about a hundred.
For several months, the P.A. has detained Moushab Ishtayeh, a senior Hamas operative and a member of Lions’ Den, in Jericho prison. The group was founded by Muhammad al-Azizi, a member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades of the Fatah movement.
Ishtayeh transferred Hamas funds from Turkey to finance the group’s operations. Sources in Nablus claim that although this group is independent and does not belong to any organization, it continues to receive funds from Hamas, which also supports it through its media and social networks.
Most of the group’s members belong to Fatah, but its agenda seems to be independent. It aims to spark a new armed intifada against Israel in the West Bank.
A turning point in Israel’s dealing with Lions’ Den came on Oct. 23, 2022, when the Israel Defense Forces and Israel Security Agency carried out a daring operation in the heart of the old city of Nablus, the group’s main stronghold, and killed terrorist leader Tamir al-Kilani in a sophisticated operation using a booby-trapped motorcycle. He was one of the group’s founders. Two days later, on Oct. 25, the IDF blew up the group’s explosives laboratory, killing five terrorists.
These actions shocked the group and the residents of Nablus. As a result, the families of surviving members pressured them to hand themselves over to the P.A. The pressure worked.
P.A. officials claim that, to date, about 20 members have surrendered to the P.A., handing over their weapons. In the future, they will be employed by the P.A. security forces and receive a monthly salary.
The P.A. claims it continues to pressure members of the Lions’ Den to hand themselves over in exchange for various incentives.
The group recently published a message announcing its intention to carry out terrorist attacks during the month of Ramadan.
Its members are social media stars. Through TikTok, they have become role models for young Palestinians, who did not experience the second intifada. The group’s sophisticated propaganda mechanism spreads its message throughout the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem. Leveraging its great popularity, the group gives instructions to the entire Palestinian public regarding general strikes or “Days of Rage” and violence against Israel.
Pictures of the group’s members are hung in West Bank cities, huge pictures of its martyrs are posted in the center of Gaza City, and some even appear in Jordan and Iraq.
The recovery of the Lions’ Den group is a significant challenge for both the IDF and the P.A. A senior Israeli security official says that the group is now challenging the understandings reached between the Palestinians, Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the United States in the recent security meetings in Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheikh.
The P.A. has pledged to adopt the security plan of U.S. General Michael Fenzel to fight terrorism, under which it is to train 5,000 security personnel in Jordan with American aid. The new force would then deploy in northern Samaria to fight and disarm armed terrorist groups. Their main target is Lions’ Den.
So far, Lions’ Den has carried out about 100 shooting attacks in which Israeli soldiers and civilians were killed and wounded. It also planned attacks inside pre-1967 Israel that the Israel Security Agency thwarted, and it is still planning attacks in Israel’s major cities.
The political echelon in Israel must make a fateful decision to end the activities of this terrorist group before it succeeds in carrying out a major attack in the center of the country.
There seems to be no escape from a significant military operation in Nablus with a massive and prolonged entry into its old city, house-to-house searches, arrests or killing of the terrorists, and the dismantling of its terrorist infrastructure. The Lions’ Den group continues to grow stronger, and the confrontation between it and Israel’s security forces is inevitable.
Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israeli radio and television, is a senior Middle East analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as director general and chief editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
Originally published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.