Suffocated by Israeli occupation, a new generation of Palestinian militants takes up the fight

A poster featuring the images of slain members of a militant group known as the Lions' Den is seen on the window of a barber shop in the Old City of Nablus, West Bank. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC - image credit)
A poster featuring the images of slain members of a militant group known as the Lions' Den is seen on the window of a barber shop in the Old City of Nablus, West Bank. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC - image credit)

Amid the labyrinth of covered markets and ancient stone streets in Nablus's Old City, music blasts from a barber shop.

The tune takes the melody of an old Palestinian folk song and adapts it for much darker times. The lyrics glorify the deaths of those resisting Israeli occupation, including "Wadee the Lion," who, as the words go, lived with "his hand on the trigger."

"Wadee" is Wadee al-Houh, one of the former leaders of an emerging group of young Palestinian militants called "the Lions' Den."

Al-Houh was 31 years old when he and four other members of the Lions' Den militia were killed during an Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) raid on his home in October 2022. The apartment where the attack occurred is just across the narrow alleyway from the West Bank barber shop.

Stephanie Jenzer/CBC
Stephanie Jenzer/CBC

Thirty-year-old Mohammed, who is in the chair getting a beard trim, says al-Houh's death made him a revered figure in Nablus and beyond. He also says the Lions' Den, which al-Houh co-founded, has rapidly grown in strength and popularity.

"Here, people support the Lions' Den, not the Palestinian Authority," Mohammed told CBC News. "And its popularity is so huge that people of all generations support them."

In the space of less than a year, Lions' Den has become one of the most prominent new militant groups that have changed the nature and intensity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel has blamed the group's violent ways — which the IDF says includes multiple killings, ambushes and improvised explosive 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 main 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 years old, and his decades-long calls for a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has less and less resonance with a frustrated new generation.

Palestinian areas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have traditionally been dominated by several large Palestinian factions — groups such as Fatah, which dominates the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls Gaza.

Ronaldo Schemidt/Pool via Reuters
Ronaldo Schemidt/Pool via Reuters

What distinguishes the Lions' Den and other new, independent militias is that they shun traditional sectarian labels.

"They're with us during our funerals. They're with us during our weddings. They are there for us all the time," said Mohammed, the barber shop customer, underscoring the group's ability to appeal to a notoriously divided populace.

Around the corner from the barber shop, the Lion's Den flag — which features Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque flanked by two machine guns — hangs overhead from ancient wooden rafters. Photographs and posters of gun-toting members who are now deceased, including al-Houh, are plastered on doors and walls.

Outside the door of al-Houh's former apartment, now padlocked, CBC News met three teenagers who said they were drawn to the site because of what the Lions' Den stands for.

CBC News is not identifying them because of their age, and for their own safety.

Raneen Sawafta/Reuters
Raneen Sawafta/Reuters

"Look at what the Israeli occupation is doing. It is killing us," said one 16-year-old, as he attempted to explain why the Lions' Den has such appeal for his generation.

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

The young man said the Palestinian leadership's advocacy of non-violence and negotiations with Israel has nothing to show for it.

"If the [Palestinian Authority] collaborated with the Lions' Den, Palestine would have been liberated" by now, he said.

The teenager said he intends to join the group and that his parents have given their consent.

"For the sake of my country, this is what I will do."

WATCH | Why independent militia groups are gaining support in the West Bank:

'A state of despair'

In an interview with CBC News, Palestinian Authority spokesperson Sabri Saidam deflected the blame for the rise of the new militias to Israel's occupation policies.

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

He agreed, however, with the assessment that the dynamic has become extremely combustible.

"The conflict, I think, is passing through one of its ugliest waves so far," said Saidam.

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

In a social media post, the Lions' Den claimed it attacked Israeli soldiers. In its own statement, the IDF says its troops defended themselves from homemade explosives with live fire.

Raneen Sawafta/Reuters
Raneen Sawafta/Reuters

This week's raid followed a much larger and deadlier one in Nablus in late February that left 11 Palestinians dead and injured more than 100.

The IDF claims seven militants — among them Lions' Den members — were killed, including one who was involved in the shooting death of a Israeli military staff sergeant in October. Four Palestinian civilians were also among those killed.

In an interview at the IDF's communications headquarters in Tel Aviv, Lt.-Col. Richard Hecht said the fact that such groups are loosely organized and not tied to traditional factions has made it harder to counter them.

"There is no ecosystem that you have with Islamic Jihad or Hamas, and that is very challenging," said Hecht. Groups like the Lions' Den will "just go out and try to create havoc and damage and kill as many soldiers as they can."

Hecht says memberships in such groups tend to be fluid, with people joining and leaving frequently, so the IDF has instead used raids, such as the recent ones in Nablus, to go after identifiable leaders.

Adrian Di Virgilio/CBC
Adrian Di Virgilio/CBC

He said their own estimates suggest that for the Lions' Den, membership ranges between 20 and 60 members at any given time. He stresses, however, that it is only one of several groups the IDF is concerned about.

"About six months ago, we had [the Lions' Den] decapitated. Now, we see another rise again, because coming up to Ramadan, these conditions look like a perfect storm [for more violence]," said Hecht.

Almost daily clashes

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

It has already been an especially violent 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 people, with confrontations now occurring on an almost daily basis.

Palestinian leaders blame the violence not on the militants but on the actions of Israel's new ultraconservative government, which has taken an aggressive approach to expanding Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Stephanie Jenzer/CBC
Stephanie Jenzer/CBC

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

Clashes between Israeli settlers and Palestinians have been especially ferocious. On Feb. 26, after a Palestinian man shot and killed two Israeli brothers in their car on the main street in Huwara, an angry mob of settlers rampaged through the town, setting fire to Palestinian homes and businesses.

In the aftermath, finance minister Bezalel Smotrich suggested Israel should "wipe out" the town, a remark he later retracted.

Days later, a 21-year-old Palestinian was shot dead by an Israeli settler after the settler claimed the man came onto his property and tried to plant a bomb. The young man's family disputes this, saying the settler was the aggressor.

This past weekend, three young Palestinians — aged 18, 22, and 24, and claimed by the Lions' Den — were shot dead after Israel's military said they had automatic weapons and were planning an ambush at a checkpoint near the town of Sarra, outside Nablus.

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

Stephanie Jenzer/CBC
Stephanie Jenzer/CBC

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

Winning over Palestinians

The father of one family said he supported the Lions' Den, but wouldn't speak about their tactics further as he had a job in Israel and saying anything would put it in jeopardy.

Indeed, the Palestinian Authority says many people fear a further rise in violence will lead to restrictions on movement and a ban on crossing into Israel, which could create an economic catastrophe in West Bank communities.

Stephanie Jenzer/CBC
Stephanie Jenzer/CBC

Sarra's mayor, Mohammed Turabi, told CBC he is "independent" and not affiliated with Fatah, the largest faction making up the Palestinian Authority. But he also said he was torn over groups like the Lions' Den.

"We are very proud of our young men and we're very proud of their acts, despite the fact that sometimes I disagree with the way it's conducted," he said. "These young men have gained the respect, the confidence and the pride of the people because they have gone outside of the factional conflict ... over power, over prestige. That is why people respect them."

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

The question on the minds of many in both Israel and the occupied West Bank is whether the surge of violence ignited by the young militants may mark the beginning of a third such uprising.