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Israel challenged by West Bank 'Lion’s Den' assailants

Prime Minister Yair Lapid struggles now with Palestinian unrest in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, fueled by provocations on the part of ultranationalist legislator Itamar Ben-Gvir and opposition head Benjamin Netanyahu.
Jewish men, wearing traditional Jewish prayer shawls, gather to perform the annual Cohanim prayer during the holiday of Sukkot at the Western Wall (R), while above are seen the Muslim Dome of the Rock mosque (2nd-L) and its minaret (L), in the Old City of Jerusalem, Oct. 12, 2022.

The unrest began in the spring of 2022 in Jenin, the town once dubbed the West Bank’s “suicide” capital, spilled over to Nablus, passed briefly through Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority (PA), and is now setting east Jerusalem ablaze. All signs indicate that the growing tensions of recent months between Israel and the Palestinians seem to be a precursor to a third intifada.

As of this writing, pitched battles are being waged between special Israeli military forces and armed Palestinian militants in the Jenin refugee camp. Reports say two Palestinians have been killed, one of them Red Crescent doctor Abdullah Abu Tin, apparently hit by a volley fired at the ambulance in which he was sitting. Israel insists the shooters were Palestinians, arguing that its own forces are highly trained and deploy sharpshooters against their targets, rarely using automatic fire.

Either way, the coming days do not augur well for east Jerusalem tensions, with two Muslim prayer days at the holy Haram al-Sharif Mosque compound, followed by two Jewish pilgrimage days at the same site, which Jews revere as the Temple Mount.

The first challenge to Israel’s attempts to restore calm to the area will occur today, Oct. 14, after the traditional Muslim prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque. The event has all the makings of a violent eruption reminiscent of bloody clashes in years gone by.

Israel has called up four Border Police companies to deal with the escalation as it mulls whether to beef up its military actions and pressure on the armed Palestinians, risking a wider conflagration, or to ease up to some extent on the intense raids it has been mounting in Jenin and Nablus, hoping calm will soon return.

The current escalation has its roots in varied circumstances, with radicals on both sides fanning the flames.

On the Palestinian side, it involves groups of young Palestinians, too young to remember the horrors of the second intifada (2000-2005), during which over 3,000 Palestinians were killed, sinking Palestinian hopes of negotiations with Israel on establishing a nation state of their own. These young men thrive on TikTok, as glaringly manifested in the actions of a group of young Nablus residents calling themselves the “Lion’s Den.”

Israel believes this group, comprised of Palestinians previously affiliated with other terrorist groupings, is currently leading the violence, including most of the recent shooting attacks at Israeli soldiers and civilians in the West Bank, which have claimed the lives of at least four Israelis. Last week, the “Lion’s Den” assumed responsibility for the drive-by shooting that killed Staff Sgt. Ido Baruch who was part of a force securing a protest march of Jewish settlers in the northern Samaria region of the West Bank.

“We’re talking about a total of a few dozen young people,” a senior security source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “Some come from villages, others from Nablus itself. They are armed, they are militant, they live and flourish on social media, posting every action, every shooting, every terror attack and in this way fanning the flames.”

The Shin Bet security agency has likely identified the members of this grouping, and most will probably find themselves in jail sooner or later. Meanwhile, these youths are turning into local heroes among their age cohort.

“Social media and especially TikTok intensifies these events,” a senior Israeli intelligence official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “It creates myths of bravery, some greatly exaggerated, and sweeps up large chunks of enthusiastic public opinion, creating copycat attempts. It is hard to deal with this situation, especially with the pace at which these myths burgeon and events occur.”

But Israelis are also responsible for the unrest, especially ultranationalist Knesset member Itamar Ben-Gvir, formerly a member of the outlawed racist Kahane Hai organization and currently enjoying a surge in the polls as head of the Jewish power party ahead of the Nov. 1 elections.

Last night, Ben-Gvir showed up at the fulcrum of Jewish-Arab unrest in east Jerusalem, and pulled out a gun in front of the Arab crowd. Prior to the campaign of the previous elections in 2021, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prided himself on preventing Ben-Gvir from entering the Temple Mount and setting the region on fire. In this latest, far more dramatic election campaign for opposition head Netanyahu, the latter appears to be coordinating his moves with those of Ben-Gvir and his allies in the Religious Zionism party.

Netanyahu has a clear interest in an escalation of violence, which almost automatically bolsters his public support. Many Israeli voters have already forgotten the May 2021 rioting in mixed Jewish-Arab towns under his watch and his long years of clandestine conciliatory behavior toward the Palestinians. His “Mr. Security” image is still alive and well, especially among his right-wing voter base.

Netanyahu reportedly met with Ben-Gvir earlier this week to “coordinate their moves,” even as the extremist lawmaker continued to show up at every hotbed site and stir up provocations. Ben-Gvir’s friend, Knesset member Simcha Rothman from the Religious Zionism party, took up a spot outside Jerusalem’s Golden Gate last week, near a Muslim cemetery, and blew a shofar, a ram’s horn used by Jews during their High Holidays. Rothman’s provocative act also stirred up tremendous Palestinian outrage, fueling persistent Muslim rumors and claims that the Zionists are plotting to take over Haram al-Sharif and deprive the Muslim world of its third-holiest site.

All the components of a major eruption are in place. The power of the more moderate and moderating forces is waning. The Palestinian Authority is experiencing a prolonged crisis of leadership and legitimization, resulting in loss of control over militants. Netanyahu, who for years was one of those moderating forces, seems to toe in line with Ben-Gvir.

Caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who is trying to stabilize the unrest, cannot afford to be perceived as giving in to Palestinian rioting and terrorism ahead of the crucial elections. Even as he prays for a miracle, Lapid must prepare to deal with a spark that could turn the smoldering embers into a full-blown blaze just two weeks before the elections.


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