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‘Lion's Den’ sharpens West Bank conflict as Israeli elections loom

Israel’s ultra-right could boost Netanyahu; Iran returns as election issue, via Ukraine. 
West Bank

New chapter in Palestinian resistance movement 

The Nablus-based Areen al-Usood group (Arabic for ‘Lion’s Den,’) is reshaping the Palestinian resistance movement. 

Daoud Kuttab has the background on the group of highly disciplined young men in their 20s, whose small cells have launched brazen attacks on Israeli security forces in the West Bank, while avoiding clashes with Palestinian police. 

The Lion's Den appear to have links to the Gaza-based Islamic Jihad movement, whose popularity has spread in the West Bank, especially in Jenin, Nablus and Tulkarem. 

The West Bank has been on high boil this year. Palestinians cite the endless and worsening hardships of occupation, the absence of a peace process, and increased provocation by settlers as reasons for the surge in militancy. 

In March, Israeli Defense Forces launched "Operation Wave Breaker" to contain and crack down on these armed groups, and to disrupt terrorist operations inside Israel, which had killed nineteen Israelis and foreigners this spring. 

The violence hasn’t let up. In August the IDF killed 18-year old Lion's Den leader Ibrahim al-Nabulsi, the son of a Palestinian Authority intelligence official. Large crowds attended the funeral, and the violence continued. 

Third intifada in the works? 

In addition to the ongoing operations in Jenin, the Israeli army has imposed blockades and sieges on the Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem, and Nablus this month, following killings of Israeli soldiers. 

In Nablus, with an estimated population of about 200,000, the IDF has blocked the city’s entrances with checkpoints and earth mounds, while Israeli drones hover over the city, following the Lion’s Den killing of an Israeli soldier, Ahmad Melhem reports from the West Bank. 

The expansion of the violence into East Jerusalem has been especially worrying for Israelis. 

“All signs indicate that the growing tensions of recent months between Israel and the Palestinians seem to be a precursor to a third intifada,” writes Ben Caspit.  

Radical right may be key to Bibi win 

The escalation of violence in the West Bank would appear to complicate the campaign of Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, and empower former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the Nov. 1 elections, but it’s complicated.  

The contest looks to be another close call, and an ultra-right party and Knesset member may be the key to Netanyahu’s return to office. 

The spotlight has turned on Itamar Ben Gvir, one of the most radical figures in Israeli politics ever in such a potentially impactful position.   

“The man who has described himself as a disciple of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Kach movement was banned in Israel over its racist messages and who until two years ago displayed a photo on his living room wall of Baruch Goldstein, the settler who massacred dozens of Muslim worshipers in Hebron, is now a hero to thousands of Israelis,” Caspit reports from Israel. "The young thug who boldly threatened late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shortly before his 1995 assassination is now a popular television studio guest, enjoying a star-like status among young Israelis."

Ben Gvir brandished a gun in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem on Oct. 13, following a violent confrontation in Jerusalem, sparking a viral political and social media reaction, just as he intended, as Mazal Mualem reports

“With two weeks until the election, Ben Gvir is also taking advantage of attacks from Jewish organizations in the US, which are disturbed by his rise to power,” writes Mualem. “The way he sees it, such attacks are further proof to his supporters that he is doing the right thing.” 

Netanyahu has tried to keep his distance from Ben Gvir, while courting his followers, to keep alive the prospect of a right-wing government under his premiership.  The ultra-right alliance could tally more than a dozen seats in the 120-member Knesset, or parliament, in a contest that could be decided by one or two seats.    

All this is not dissimilar from the way some mainstream Republicans seek to keep the base active while keeping a distance from former US President Donald Trump

Arab Israelis tune out 

Israeli Arab voters are increasingly preoccupied with surge of crime and violence and have lost faith in the political system, which could complicate Lapid’s prospects for a return to office in a close election. 

In last year’s elections, the four seats of the United Arab List (Raam) party titled the balance in favor of the Lapid-Naftali Bennett coalition, the first time that an Arab party had joined an Israeli government. 

“Continuous violence is one of the reasons the Arab community has lost faith in the political system,” writes Afif Abu Much, “particularly its Knesset representatives. As a result, a sharp decline in Arab participation in the upcoming Nov. 1 election is anticipated.” 

A ‘major eruption’ before elections? 

“All the components of a major eruption are in place,” Caspit concludes. “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.”

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.” 

The return of Iran via Ukraine 

Netanyahu has so far been unable to play the Iran card in the campaign. 

The stalemated Iran nuclear talks, further complicated by recent US and EU sanctions on Iran for the crackdown on demonstrators protesting the death of Mahsa Amini in custody for a hijab violation, have left Netanyahu without one of his favorite issues and talking points. 

With the talks stalled, Bibi can’t blame Lapid for caving to the Americans and letting the Iran deal happen, at least not now. 

As we noted here last week, Iranian officials are still dangling the prospect of a deal on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) “after the elections,” meaning the US elections on Nov. 8 — which also happens to be after the Israeli elections a week earlier. 

The US this week called out Russian use of Iranian drones in Ukraine, as Jared Szuba reports. 

Israel is under pressure by Washington and Kyiv to do more for Ukraine, which requested access to Israel’s Iron Dome air defense technology. 

Israel continues to refuse to provide arms, and has so far provided only helmets and protective vests to Ukraine, as Rina Bassist reports

Netanyahu has meanwhile said he would consider providing arms to Ukraine and mediate between Moscow and Kyiv in the Ukraine war, if elected. 

Fast facts: population 

  • Israel: 9 million, of which 2 million are Arab citizens 

  • West Bank (ruled by Palestinian Authority): 3 million 

  • Gaza (ruled by Hamas): 2 million 

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