By JAMES MARKIN
As 2023 gets underway, a brand new right-wing government is coming together in Israel. In December, Netanyahu announced its guiding principles, stating proudly that “the Jewish people have an exclusive and unquestionable right to all areas of the Land of Israel.” This new brash announcement of colonialist intent followed a year of historic resistance from Palestinians. Both developments heralded the beginning of the end of the old system of rule in Palestine, which has endured since the Oslo Accords of the late 1990s.
During the Oslo Accords, the PLO, which was the umbrella for Palestinian liberation organizations, came to an agreement with Israel. In exchange for recognizing Israel, they were allowed to return to Palestine from exile. With the support of Israel, they established a pseudo-government in Palestine, the Palestinian Authority (PA). This was a good deal for Israel because it meant that Palestinians could take over many of the colonial policing tasks that had previously been carried out by the IDF and border police.
The accords also divided the West Bank into a series of zones, with Area A under PA control, Area B under joint PA and Israeli administration, and Area C consisting solely of Israeli-administered settlements. While Israel was also supposed to eventually evacuate these settlements, they have only expanded in the West Bank since Oslo. Over the years, as Israel has made real elections impossible, the PA, dominated by the Fatah party, has functioned more or less as an unelected Palestinian police force on behalf of Israeli rule.
In 2022, however, bigger and bigger cracks began to emerge in this system. Since late in the previous year, Jenin in particular has become a focal point for Palestinian resistance. The small Palestinian city in the extreme north of the West Bank has a long history and reputation for militancy, dating back to the famous Battle of Jenin during the Second Intifada. More recently, in 2021, when Palestinian political prisoners broke out of Gilboa prison using spoons, Israel found them hiding in Jenin. For much of 2022, Israel waged war against the Jenin Brigade, a Palestinian militia lodged in its stronghold, the so-called “wasps nest” of the Jenin Refugee camp.
To combat this new rise in militancy, Israel has returned to its old tactics: targeted assassinations of political enemies within the West Bank, including Jenin Brigade leaders. In February 2022, the elite Border Police’s National Counter-Terrorism Unit, known as “Yambam,” carried out a series of targeted killings within the Area A city of Nablus, leaving men associated with the Fatah-aligned Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade—Ashraf al-Mabsalt, Adham Mabrouka, and Muhammad al-Dakhil—riddled with bullets. While Israel claimed that the men had died when Yambam officers fired back in a shootout, a joint investigation by The Intercept and Israeli outlets Local Call and +972 Magazine found that these were targeted assassinations. After escaping both this killing and another in August, the 18-year-old militant Ibrahim al-Nabulsi became known as “The Lion of Nablus.” Later that spring, while reporting on clashes between Jenin Brigade and IDF soldiers in Jenin, the Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was also assassinated, this time by IDF soldiers.
The rise of Lion’s Den
The rise of armed conflict and Israeli retaliation in the northern West Bank is part of a broader process of the collapse of the Oslo status quo, as Palestinian youth reject the passive compliance of the PA. While the resurgence of resistance might have begun in Jenin, it was in the ancient city of Nablus where the powder keg exploded.
In early September, following the death of Shireen Abu Akleh and Israel’s killing of the “Lion of Nablus,” Ibrahim al-Nablusi, a new armed group called Lion’s Den (Arin al-Asoud) announced its formation. This new group was formed out of the fusion of a small group of young men with associations with existing armed groups, including the secular Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and the religious Islamic Jihad. While the fathers of many of these young men were among some of the top leaders of existing Palestinian political and military organizations, Lion’s Den was expressly independent and born out of the frustration of the youth with PA collaboration with the Israeli state. This same motivation has also fueled the Jenin Brigade, whose spokesperson told CNN that even the youth in Jenin who had university degrees had turned to armed resistance because Israeli occupation had robbed them of living a prosperous and peaceful life.
In September, Lion’s Den launched a series of shooting attacks on IDF troops and Israeli settlers in the West Bank, managing to injure one soldier and kill another. The Lion’s Den offensive, while small, coincided with a series of gunfights between Israeli troops and armed Palestinian groups, another of which led to the death of an IDF major. Even though the actual military operations carried out by Lion’s Den were of minimal military significance, they captured the imagination of the Palestinian people of the West Bank and received high levels of support. When Israel used a motorcycle bomb to assassinate the popular Lion’s Den leader Tamer al Kilani, thousands of ordinary people joined his funeral procession.
Following the launch of Lion’s Den, the PA completely lost control of the streets in the labyrinthine old city of Nablus, where the armed group regularly held large public rallies. The stated goal of Lion’s Den—independent and unapologetic resistance to Israeli rule—struck a chord with many Palestinians who for decades had lived under occupation and watched their unelected leaders cooperate with the enemy.
This movement represented a massive breakdown in the Oslo System in Palestine with high ranking Fatah members admitting to The New York Times that they were supporting Lion’s Den. The Times even quoted prominent Fatah dissident Jamal Tirawi as saying that he and other Fatah leaders would give money to Lion’s Den after Friday prayers in Nablus: “You see a donation box, and you give 100 shekels. … Little by little, that number increases”. Similarly, Jenin Brigade fighters told CNN that the PA was “hemorrhaging support even among the ranks of its own security forces. Numerous members of the PA’s police force and other security agencies have been involved in attacking Israeli forces.” This statement backs up Israeli claims that PA police forces had been involved in the shootout that killed the IDF Major.
The siege of the West Bank
In response to this breakdown in order, Israel vowed vengeance and unleashed a series of attacks and restrictions against the Palestinian population of the West Bank. Most dramatic of these was the Siege of Nablus; as Israel’s armed forces worked to crush Lion’s Den, they closed the gates of the city and implemented extreme movement restrictions in and out. This extended the normal wait at Israeli checkpoints around the city into the realm of three to four hours, and turned trips of a few miles into all-day journeys. The siege lasted for the entirety of the month of October, causing lines of cars to stretch miles and severely risking the lives of those who needed to travel fast to receive medical treatment.
As the siege stretched on, a series of general strikes was called in response to further targeted assassinations and bombings by Israeli forces. IDF troops attacked protesters using live rounds, leading to mass arrests of Palestinian youths and hundreds of injuries in the crowd. This broadened the political movement from the armed groups into mass mobilizations in the streets, if only intermittently. The explosion also spread from the north of the West Bank after the death of Mohammad Fadi Nouri, a 16-year-old boy who had been shot by Israel in a village outside of the de facto capital Ramallah the previous month during protests against the targeted assassinations in Nablus. His death sparked a wave of anger in Ramallah.
Finally, the Israeli siege spread to the city of Hebron, far to the south of Nablus. Hebron is noteworthy for the presence of the Ibrahimi Mosque, a deeply sacred site to both Islam and Judaism, which has been the justification for the most intensive urban settlement in the West Bank. This makes Hebron one of the few places where Israeli settlers and Palestinians live in close proximity within the same urban area, leading to extremely high degrees of repression for the Palestinian population.
On Oct. 30, Israeli troops sealed Palestinian roads leading in and out of Hebron with dirt mounds, following an attempt on the life of the far-right member of Knesset (parliament) Itamar Ben Gvir. A Palestinian man, identified by Israeli troops as a school teacher named Mohammad Jaabari, had opened fire at the house of Ben Gvir. He was later killed in the ensuing shootout. While Jaabari failed to kill Ben Gvir, he did accidentally kill an Israeli settler who was returning from the store late that night. In retaliation for the shooting, Israel demolished the house of Jaabari’s family, and Israeli settlers fired on the homes of Palestinian residents of Hebron.
Elections bring a far-right government to Israel
Beyond surviving the assassination attempt, 2022 was a good year for Itamar Ben Gvir, who started the year on the fringes of the political scene but today finds himself to be a government minister. As fighting and uprisings engulfed the West Bank, Israel held its fifth set of elections in three years.
These repeated elections have become a feature of the Israeli Knesset as of late due to the ongoing political crisis caused by the most successful politician in Israeli history, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu. Netanyahu has regularly delivered pluralities to his secular right-wing Likud party on election day; however, he has become associated with personal controversies and corruption, which has starkly divided Israel’s parliamentary landscape into “pro-Bibi” and “anti-Bibi” camps.
In 2021, although Likud received the most votes, Netanyahu’s usual coalition of right-wing parties did not receive enough votes to form a majority government. Instead, an uneasy “anti-Bibi” unity government was formed, led by the centrist secular Yesh Atid Party but with the premiership shared with Naftali Bennett of the small right-wing religious party Yamina. This coalition was supported by parties across the political spectrum, and crucially by Ra’am, a conservative political party that represents Arab minority interests within Israel. This represented the first time in Israeli history that an independent non-Jewish party had supported a Zionist government. The Joint List, the main Palestinian bloc in the Knesset—made up of the Hadash, Balad, and Ta’al parties—refused to support this new government; however, debates within the bloc over this issue fractured it.
The collapse of the “anti-Bibi” coalition in 2022 was a foregone conclusion given how tight the parliamentary math was and the general ideological differences between the coalition parties. In the 2022 campaign, the Joint List split into two separate factions. Hadash—which contains the Communist Party—and Ta’al ran on the Joint List ticket, but the left-wing nationalist Balad party separated and ran independently amid fears that Hadash might be willing to make a deal with future Zionist governments in the Knesset. The split of the Palestinian parties was bemoaned by many in the “anti-Bibi” camp as they worried that Balad would not get enough votes to reach the threshold, thereby freeing up parliamentary seats for “pro-Bibi” parties.
These fears ended up coming true. Balad’s stance for complete political independence from Zionism is clearly necessary for a Palestinian party in the Israeli Knesset, and they ran an excellent campaign, outperforming many expectations. However, they barely did not make the electoral threshold. The two liberal Zionist parties, Labor and Meretz, also performed poorly, opening up space for historic victories for Netanyahu’s far-right allies: Bezalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben Gvir, and their Religious Zionist party. This is how, with only small changes in the voting results from the 2021 election, 2022 represented a massive swing to the right in the Knesset. With a clear mandate delivered, Netanyahu set about forming the most far-right government in Israeli history.
The lifting of the siege
On Oct. 25, a major Israeli incursion into the old city of Nablus managed to kill five of the major leaders of Lion’s Den after heavy fighting in the city streets. Israel also claimed that this attack destroyed a Lion’s Den weapons lab. This attack coincided with months of extreme pressure by PA leadership behind the scenes for Lion’s Den leaders to turn themselves over to PA authorities. The next day, Lion’s Den put out a statement on its telegram channel stating that members were free to turn themselves in to authorities, as this was a personal decision.
The following day, Israeli forces managed to arrest two major leaders of the group, including the brother of Ibrahim al-Nablusi. The day after that, an additional four major leaders of the group complied with the PA’s demands and surrendered themselves to the PA police. While Lion’s Den officially continues to exist, it is widely believed that the majority of the founding members are either dead or in Israeli or PA custody, making the group mostly defunct. The precipitous collapse of the Lion’s Den in less than a week testifies to the extreme difficulty of taking on the Israeli military machine with an approach based on “heroic” actions carried out by small cells of radicals. With Lion’s Den mostly destroyed, Israel fully lifted the emergency movement restrictions in the West Bank on Nov. 3, ending the siege.
The Old World is dying, a New World is yet to be born
The formation of the sixth Netanyahu Government in December has caused great consternation around the world. With the far-right Bezalel Smotrich being installed as finance minister alongside Itamar Ben Gvir as Security Minister, it is certainly the most right-wing government Israel has ever had. Netanyahu has also promised significant expansion and development of Zionist settlements. He tweeted on Dec. 28, “The government will promote and develop settlement in all parts of the Land of Israel—in the Galilee, the Negev, the Golan, Judea, and Samaria.”
For his part, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the PA, responded to the formation of the new government by calling on the international community to boycott Israel. In a separate statement he also bemoaned the lack of “a partner in Israel who believes in a two-state solution based on international legitimacy, signed agreements and renounced violence and terrorism”. These announcements have not fazed Israel’s most powerful supporter, the U.S. government. Addressing the liberal Zionist organization J Street’s December conference, Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that the Biden administration “will gauge the government by the policies it pursues rather than individual personalities”.
The reality is that the resurgent Israeli far-right only represents an intensification of the brutal Zionist settler-colonial policy, not a qualitative change. Israel has already been expanding settlements and murdering Palestinians and they will continue to do so, though maybe now in a more brazen and open fashion. Israel has discussed annexation of parts of the West Bank in the past, and such annexations will remain on the table.
In the face of such brazen Israeli brutality, the “peace process” methods and the system of rule they inaugurated after the Oslo accords are an increasingly ineffective fig leaf over the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Mahmoud Abbas and those in Fatah whose approach involves collaboration with Israel are also losing prestige. This is exacerbated by the fact that, with Abbas aging, there is infighting within the highest leadership of the PA and the Fatah Party over who should replace him, as recent audio clips released by the rival Hamas Party suggest. This infighting is part of what caused a complete breakdown of the PA’s authority during the crisis in Nablus during the fall of 2022.
The rise of Lion’s Den and the depth of its support among the Palestinian masses testifies that the general population of the West Bank, and especially the youth, is also tired of the old collaborationist way of doing things. However, it is a contradictory phenomenon. On the one hand, it demonstrates that the next generation of Palestinians have come to reject the conciliatory leadership and strategy of the PA in favor of a much more militant outlook. However, these new groups are committed to an equally flawed strategy.
Striking back at the IDF soldiers that carry out the brutal occupation of the West Bank is perfectly righteous, and socialists should support any victories won against the Israeli occupation. However, any strategy based around small cells of armed militants is doomed to failure in the face of the vast Israeli military machine, armed and backed to the hilt by the United States. It is only when the masses of the youth and the working class become involved in the struggle that victory becomes possible.
In the spring of 2021, the heroic uprisings of Palestinians, both in East Jerusalem and in “Israel Proper”, showed the way forward. As we watch the old system crumble day by day in the West Bank, the work of organizing new vehicles that can embody the spirit of the spring of 2021 and carry forward the struggle against Zionism has become the order of the day.
Solidarity with Palestine! For a free, democratic, and secular Palestine! Toward the future socialist federation of the Middle East!
Photo: Palestinians carry the body of Jana Zakaran, 16, during her funeral in the West Bank city of Jenin. Jana was killed by an Israeli army sniper on Dec. 11 while trying to rescue her cat from the roof of her home. ( Majdi Mohammed / AP)