Recent coverage of Israel and Palestine has focused on the new Netanyahu government’s efforts to weaken Israel’s supreme court, expand settlements in the West Bank, and strengthen the country’s far-right. But developments in Palestinian leadership are equally important. With an 88-year-old Mahmoud Abbas at its head, the Palestinian Authority (PA), the primary governing body in Palestinian territory, faces a looming succession crisis. Moreover, the PA’s authority has gradually declined as Israeli territorial intrusions have weakened its sovereignty and as poor economic conditions have simultaneously bankrupted the PA and increased poverty in the West Bank.
Growing discontent has led to the creation of various armed splinter groups such as the Lions’ Den and Jenin Brigades—just as they appeared during the Second Intifada, a Palestinian mass resistance movement against Israel that took place between 2000 and 2005. These developments are extremely dangerous as informal, decentralized groups performing isolated acts of violence could lead to further escalation with Israel—a problem that cannot be deterred by Israeli-PA security agreements that would ordinarily limit such violence. As an increasingly splintered PA meets an increasingly centralized Israel, there is no telling when the next major escalation will arrive.
In the Lions’ Den
On February 22, 2023, Israeli security forces entered the ancient city of Nablus in the northern West Bank, planning to arrest members of an armed Palestinian group known as the Lions’ Den, which vigorously opposes Israeli occupation. Soon after Israeli officials entered the city, three individuals fired gunshots at them. A four-hour-long gunfight commenced. By the end of the carnage, eleven Palestinians had been killed, and over one hundred were injured.[i] In an apparent response to the raid, six rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza, to which Israel retaliated with missile strikes directed at the Gaza Strip.[ii]
Raids of this kind have become commonplace in the West Bank—and they have become increasingly linked to cycles of violence and escalation. Consider an eerily similar Israeli army raid just four months earlier in the same city. On August 9, 2022, Israeli forces entered Nablus and killed Ibrahim al-Nabulsi, a well-known Palestinian resistance fighter known to locals as the “lion of Nablus.” Ibrahim al-Nabulsi had co-founded the Lions’ Den with three other men—all of whom have since been killed.[iii] But the organization has grown rapidly in spite of Ibrahim al-Nabulsi’s death. The Lions’ Den now consists of Islamic Jihad, Fatah, and Hamas members, and they have often engaged in armed gunfights with Israeli forces.[iv] Since Ibrahim al-Nabulsi’s death, militants have converted his safe house into a shrine, considering him a martyr for the Palestinian cause.[v] The organization has gained a significant following on social media. After his death, TikTok erupted with tributes to “the lion of Nablus,” and the Lions’ Den soared in popularity. After being banned on TikTok, the group moved to telegram, where they have 130,000 followers.[vi]
The rapid growth of the Lions’ Den symbolizes broader discontent in the region and contextualizes the recent proliferation of violence. After the February 22nd raid, the Lions’ Den took responsibility for six of the fighters who died.[vii] But the violent emergence of splinter groups has neither been limited to the city of Nablus nor to the Lions’ Den. Other groups have emerged such as the Jenin Brigades (based in Jenin, north of Nablus), a group which has been supported by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Fatah, and Hamas.[viii] Furthermore, in the aftermath of the February 22nd raid, splinter groups have competed with each other to claim responsibility for the fighters who died.[ix]
However, West Bank settlements, land confiscation, and frequent military operations conducted by Israel are not the only causes of resentment for Palestinians living in the West Bank. Many Palestinians are simultaneously infuriated with the Palestinian Authority, the primary governing body overseeing Palestinian territories in the West Bank, which has chronically failed to protect them.
The Old Guard
The Palestinian Authority (PA) was created in 1994 by the Gaza-Jericho agreement. The agreement gave it “nominal control over both security-related and civilian matters in urban areas of the [Occupied Palestinian Territories] (Area A), and only civilian control over Palestinian rural areas (Area B).”[x] The rest of the territory in the West Bank is under Israeli control. With Yasser Arafat as its president in the 1990s, the PA worked collaboratively with Israel to defeat Hamas. However, when negotiations with Israel failed in 2000 at Camp David, the Second Intifada began.[xi] By 2005, after years of intense fighting, and after Yasser Arafat had died and been replaced by Mahmoud Abbas as leader of the Palestinian Authority, violence had mostly come to an end. Since the end of the Second Intifada in 2005, Mahmoud Abbas has strived to maintain security ties with Israel in order to crack down on violence committed by splinter groups.[xii]
However, Israeli-PA security ties have largely eroded. On February 6, 2023, in response to an Israeli assault on a Jenin refugee camp, Mahmoud Abbas announced that the PA would be suspending security cooperation with Israel, an action he had taken only once before.[xiii] As of February 26, 2023, reports indicated that Israeli and PA leaders had met in Aqaba, Jordan, in the hopes of reestablishing security ties.[xiv] Israeli and PA officials also met in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt on March 19, 2023.[xv] But these attempts are insufficient for the PA to regain its legitimacy and strength. By severing cooperation with Israel, the PA risks its very existence as the United States and Israel may implement crippling retaliatory sanctions in the event of permanent separation. The government cannot maintain cooperation while preserving its domestic legitimacy either, as Palestinians are growing more and more dissatisfied with a Palestinian government that has failed to protect them.[xvi] With Israel frequently raiding areas that are ostensibly under PA control, many Palestinians are convinced that the it lacks both sovereignty and legitimacy.[xvii] Thus, whether or not Israel and the PA maintain security cooperation, it is a “lose-lose” situation for the Palestinian Authority and Abbas.[xviii]
The Palestinian Authority has experienced a dramatic decline in economic and political support. In the aftermath of the pandemic, Palestinians in the West Bank have experienced widespread food insecurity and poverty, while “economic growth and the PA’s revenues remain below potential.”[xix] Moreover, foreign aid has declined from “27 percent of GDP in 2008 to 1.8 percent in 2021.”[xx] As a result, the Palestinian Authority is “on the brink of bankruptcy.”[xxi]
Meanwhile, Palestinian citizens have grown dissatisfied with an increasingly autocratic Abbas who has prevented elections and continued cooperating (for the most part) with Israel.[xxii] The 88-year-old has not given any indication of who his successor may be, sparking fears of a possible succession crisis and PA collapse.[xxiii] These sentiments are reflected by recent polling. Foreign Affairs reported in February that “more than 70 percent of Palestinians favor the formation of armed groups such as the Lions’ Den,” reflecting a greater belief among Palestinians in young resistance fighters than in the octogenarian, Abbas-led Palestinian Authority.[xxiv] In fact, in one poll, a surprising 36 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank said they would rather be “part of Israel” than to be in lands ruled by the PA.[xxv]
Dissatisfaction with the PA helps to explain the scale of the emergence of violent splinter groups in the West Bank—groups similar to those that partook in violence during the Second Intifada. And critically, these groups show no signs of stopping. When the PA’s mayor of Nablus offered an amnesty deal with Lions’ Den members, they rejected the offer.[xxvi] Other groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine, and Fatah’s Tanzim continue to plan attacks.[xxvii] Moreover, even if individual splinter groups are eradicated, the hope they give to Palestinians is more important than their numbers.[xxviii] As a result, these splinter groups introduce enormous instability into the status quo. Indeed, as noted in a recent Foreign Affairs article regarding the potential for a Third Intifada, “such splintering mirrors a problem Israel faced in the second intifada, when it could no longer trust its Palestinian partner because the PA would not, and at times could not, crack down on violence.”[xxix] Additionally, these splinter groups tend to be extremely decentralized, embracing “broad violence” and “lone wolf attacks,” a recipe for escalatory violence.[xxx]
The Third Intifada?
While a youthful rebellion against the Palestinian Authority has challenged the authority of the old guard, a right-wing, traditionalist wave has centralized power in the hands of the Netanyahu government. Many have claimed that members of Netanyahu’s government are united in their goal to “weaken Israel’s judiciary and strengthen government control over both the courts and the civil service.”[xxxi] As a result, thousands of protestors have stormed the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and many other cities across Israel.[xxxii]
As this relative strengthening of the Israeli government meets the erosion of the Palestinian Authority, there is no telling the speed at which the situation may escalate. In its weakened state, the Palestinian Authority often refuses to go after militants, emboldening splinter groups and increasing the frequency with which Israeli forces enter cities like Jenin or Nablus to arrest militants, resulting in more violence.[xxxiii]
At a tense moment like this, in which the situation in Israel and Palestine could be moving towards a Third Intifada, several important steps can be taken to prevent further escalation. In terms of stabilizing Palestinian leadership, foreign actors could consider supporting a “post-Abbas process” that would potentially legitimize his successor (if they are named) through democratic elections in the West Bank.[xxxiv] In addition, the United States and Israel could consider negotiating with Palestinians outside of Abbas’ orbit.[xxxv] To prevent other escalations, Israeli leaders, as well as leaders from foreign governments around the world, may be wise to temporarily hold off on “provocative visits and settlements in hot-button areas.”[xxxvi]
But while the situation in Israel and Palestine has grown increasingly violent, there may be room for hope. Recent reports indicate that representatives of the Netanyahu government and of Mahmoud Abbas have been meeting secretly for some time.[xxxvii] Whether any true de-escalation will result from such meetings between Israeli and Palestinian Authority leadership is its own question, especially in light of the recent spiral of provocations, the weakening of the PA, and the growing strength of rogue splinter groups. But for now, that dialogue channels remain open may be the best local and foreign observers can wish for.
Photo: APAImages/Rex/Shutterstock (Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas holds a meeting.)
[i] Patrick Kingsley, “At Least 10 Palestinians Killed During Israeli Raid in West Bank,” The New York Times, February 22, 2023, sec. World, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/22/world/middleeast/west-bank-nablus-palestinians-killed.html.
[ii] “Israeli Strikes Hits Gaza after Rockets Fired Overnight,” Reuters, February 23, 2023, sec. Middle East, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/israeli-strikes-hits-gaza-after-rockets-fired-overnight-2023-02-23/.
[iii] “Lions’ Den – Mapping Palestinian Politics – European Council on Foreign Relations,” ECFR (blog), October 10, 2022, https://ecfr.eu/special/mapping_palestinian_politics/lions-den/.
[v] Patrick Kingsley, “Killing of Young Gunman Highlights Shifts in Fast-Changing West Bank,” The New York Times, September 16, 2022, sec. World, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/16/world/middleeast/ibrahim-al-nabulsi-west-bank-violence.html.
[vi] Emanuel Fabian, “Armed Upstart Lion’s Den Challenges IDF Bid to Crack down on Nablus Terror,” The Times of Israel, October 20, 2022, https://www.timesofisrael.com/armed-upstart-lions-den-challenges-idf-bid-to-crack-down-on-nablus-terror/.
[vii] Kingsley, “At Least 10 Palestinians Killed During Israeli Raid in West Bank.”
[viii] Daniel Byman, “The Third Intifada?,” Foreign Affairs, February 7, 2023, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/israel/third-intifada-israeli-palestinian-conflict.
[ix] Kingsley, “At Least 10 Palestinians Killed During Israeli Raid in West Bank.”
[x] “Palestinian Authority (PA) – Mapping Palestinian Politics – European Council on Foreign Relations,” ECFR (blog), March 20, 2018, https://ecfr.eu/special/mapping_palestinian_politics/palestinian_authority/.
[xi] Byman, “The Third Intifada?”
[xiii] Khaled Elgindy, “Why Security Cooperation With Israel Is a Lose-Lose for Abbas,” Foreign Policy (blog), February 6, 2023, https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/02/06/palestinian-authority-israel-west-bank-security-cooperation-suspended-mahmoud-abbas/.
[xiv] Toi Staff and AFP, “At Aqaba Summit, Israel, PA Agree to Weigh Restarting Security Coordination, Meet Again in Egypt,” The Times of Israel, February 26, 2023, https://www.timesofisrael.com/liveblog_entry/at-aqaba-summit-israel-pa-agree-to-weigh-restarting-security-coordination-meet-again-in-egypt/.
[xv] Jacob Magid, “Israel, PA Renew Vow to Curb Violence and Halt Unilateral Moves at Egypt Summit,” www.timesofisrael.com, March 19, 2023, https://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-pa-renew-vow-to-curb-violence-and-halt-unilateral-moves-at-egypt-summit/.
[xvi] Elgindy, “Why Security Cooperation With Israel Is a Lose-Lose for Abbas.”
[xvii] Byman, “The Third Intifada?”
[xviii] Elgindy, “Why Security Cooperation With Israel Is a Lose-Lose for Abbas.”
[xix] “The Palestinian Economy Will Continue to Operate Below Potential Without Concrete Policy Actions,” World Bank, May 9, 2022, https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2022/05/09/the-palestinian-economy-will-continue-to-operate-below-potential-without-concrete-policy-actions.
[xxi] Elgindy, “Why Security Cooperation With Israel Is a Lose-Lose for Abbas.”
[xxii] Daniel Estrin, “A New Group of TikTok-Savvy Palestinian Fighters Tests Israeli Forces in the West Bank,” NPR, October 26, 2022, sec. World, https://www.npr.org/2022/10/26/1131362639/west-bank-lions-den-palestinian-group-israel.
[xxiii] “Managing Palestine’s Looming Leadership Transition,” February 1, 2023, https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/east-mediterranean-mena/israelpalestine/238-managing-palestines-looming-leadership-transition.
[xxiv] Byman, “The Third Intifada?”
[xxv] David Pollock and Catherine Cleveland, “What Do Palestinians Want?,” The Washington Institute, July 23, 2021, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/what-do-palestinians-want.
[xxvi] Estrin, “A New Group of TikTok-Savvy Palestinian Fighters Tests Israeli Forces in the West Bank.”
[xxvii] Aaron David Miller, “Netanyahu Faces His Own ‘Israeli Spring,’” Foreign Policy (blog), February 23, 2023, https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/02/23/israel-judicial-reform-protests-netanyahu-government-supreme-court/.
[xxviii] Estrin, “A New Group of TikTok-Savvy Palestinian Fighters Tests Israeli Forces in the West Bank.”
[xxix] Byman, “The Third Intifada?”
[xxxi] Eliav Lieblich and Adam Shinar, “The End of Israeli Democracy?,” Foreign Affairs, February 8, 2023, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/israel/end-israeli-democracy.
[xxxii] Miller, “Netanyahu Faces His Own ‘Israeli Spring.’”
[xxxiii] Estrin, “A New Group of TikTok-Savvy Palestinian Fighters Tests Israeli Forces in the West Bank.”
[xxxiv] “Managing Palestine’s Looming Leadership Transition.”
[xxxv] Byman, “The Third Intifada?”
[xxxvii] Miller, “Netanyahu Faces His Own ‘Israeli Spring.’”