The city of Nablus is under siege. And thousands of people take to its streets to mourn and rage at Israel’s killings of the city’s brave young fighters. This could be the beginning of a new phase of Palestinian armed resistance. Israel is clearly rattled.
Since March it has waged a fresh assault on West Bank cities called Operation Break the Wave. This is meant to crush the armed groups that have sprung up in the neighbourhoods and refugee camps of Palestinian cities. Its siege of Nablus, now some three weeks old, and its night raids on the city that killed five Palestinians last week, are part of that.
The Nablus-based group Lion’s Den has captured the most attention. It’s responsible for the killings of two Israeli soldiers—and been the focus of Israel’s most high-profile retaliations. But Lion’s Den is not the only new militia on the scene. The Jenin refugee camp—which earlier this year bore the brunt of Israeli repression—has also seen the rise of new armed brigades.
They are secular. And though individual members have ties to various Palestinian factions, some of which even give them funding, they are independent of any of them. They came together after the Palestinian uprising in May last year. That uprising saw mass protests and strikes in all of Palestine—including the West Bank, Jerusalem and inside Israel’s official borders.
But as the movement subsided, Israel’s repression did not. In the refugee camps of the West Bank, the new armed brigades resisted Israel’s raids and incursions. It was during one of these raids in Jenin—an attack on resistance fighters there—that an Israeli soldier shot and killed the journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.
Lion’s Den has now graduated from defensive actions to carrying out hit and run attacks on Israeli soldiers. Success has won it the popular support that armed resistance depends on. The new armed groups find shelter in the refugee camps and when the Israeli army raids the camps, they can call on supporters to resist. In that sense, Lion’s Den and others stand in a tradition of popular armed resistance that is sometimes connected to a mass movement.
But though it draws on popular support, the strategy that focuses purely on military victories leaves the source of Israel’s power—its role in defending US imperialism in the Middle East—intact. The two episodes in Israel’s history that most shook its rule—the first Intifada of 1987 and last year’s revolt—were mass uprisings.
Their protests, strikes and riots contained the seeds of revolution. The fear of resistance is what makes Israel want to crush Lion’s Den—and its mass support—swiftly and bloodily. Its collective punishment of Palestinians, and the bitterness it fuels, could do the opposite.
Israel’s occupation of Palestine—particularly the West Bank—is the root of a long-running political crisis that is leading to its fifth election in four years. The election was taking place just as Socialist Worker went to press. But its outcome will surely mean intensified repression in the West Bank, whoever wins. More than five decades of occupation and settlement-building in the West Bank has tied it inseparably to the Israeli state. Most Israeli politicians hope eventually to annex the settlements.
Yet seizing permanently the stolen land also threatens to bring more Palestinians inside Israel’s border. That’s an existential crisis for a state premised on maintaining a clear ethnic majority over Arabs. Israel’s longest-serving prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government was eventually finished off by the Palestinian revolt last year. He was replaced by a coalition of parties from across Israel’s political spectrum.
Yet those parties were also split on how to manage the occupation and preserve Israel as a “Jewish” state. Some of them are so-called “liberal” or “left” parties that think repeating false promises of a fake Palestinian state is the best way to keep Arabs out of Israel. Others want to annex the whole of the West Bank.
All of them are committed to keeping Palestinians under the thumb of Israeli military control—and crushing Palestinian resistance. But the disagreements on how to do this left the coalition fragile and vulnerable to splits. Netanyahu was able to bring down the government earlier this year by defeating it on a vote to extend Israeli civilian law to settlements.
Now Israel’s “liberal” prime minister Yair Lapid is desperate to prove he can oversee the crushing of Lion’s Den, while Netanyahu blasts him for losing control. It looks as if Netanyahu’s party could emerge once again as the largest. But it may struggle to form a coalition government. Netanyahu is hoping for the backing of an even more right wing party led by Itamar Ben‑Gvir. He’s a man who was considered too racist even to serve in Israel’s army.
The rise of the new militias is also a challenge to the Palestinian Authority (PA), which Israel allows to semi-govern parts of the West Bank. Since its foundation the PA has sought to contain Palestinian resistance. It hopes that in return, the US and Israel will one day grant it a state of its own.
Even after last year’s uprising it cracked down on Palestinian activists who continued trying to organise. But Israel insists that Palestinians will never be allowed a state. And the depth of the occupation means such a state will never truly be free of Israel.
What’s more, US president Joe Biden has given up any pretence of finding a solution. The PA has formally abandoned “security coordination” with Israel—leaving Israel to deal with Lion’s Den. For its part, Lion’s Den has said it won’t fight PA forces, and that its guns are trained on Israel alone.
But it has also refused to follow the PA’s orders. Even the armed wings of some of the factions that participate in the PA—including the ruling Fatah—have joined or called for renewed armed resistance. So the PA has flip-flopped between tolerating and condemning the armed groups.
In October it invited Lion’s Den to surrender its arms and become part of its security apparatus. Lion’s Den refused. Now the PA has begun arresting its fighters, and putting new pressure on them to surrender, which some of them have done.
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