The Palestinian power struggle continues with Lions' Den

PALESTINIAN AFFAIRS: Palestinian security sources have claimed recently that Hamas was behind the Lion's Den armed group.

 PALESTINIAN YOUTHS clash with Israeli security forces in the Shuafat refugee camp in northern Jerusalem, this week.  (photo credit: JAMAL AWAD/FLASH90)
PALESTINIAN YOUTHS clash with Israeli security forces in the Shuafat refugee camp in northern Jerusalem, this week.
(photo credit: JAMAL AWAD/FLASH90)

The armed wing of the ruling Fatah faction, al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, was quick to claim responsibility for the shooting attack at the entrance to Shuafat refugee camp in northern Jerusalem on Saturday.

Sgt. Noa Lazar, 18, a member of the Military Police Erez Battalion, was killed in the attack. David Morel, a civilian security guard, was seriously wounded and remains hospitalized in critical condition.

The perpetrator of the attack, Odai Tamimi, was not believed to be affiliated with Fatah or any other Palestinian group.

That’s why many residents of the camp who knew him well did not take Fatah's claim of responsibility seriously.

They see the announcement in the context of the power struggle between Fatah, headed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas, the Islamist movement controlling the Gaza Strip. Each party is trying to establish bases of power in Jerusalem and present itself as the sole “defender” of the city.

 Palestinian demonstrators clash with Israeli security forces during a protest in the village of Kfar Qaddum, near the West Bank city of Nablus, October 7, 2022.  (credit: NASSER ISHTAYEH/FLASH90) Palestinian demonstrators clash with Israeli security forces during a protest in the village of Kfar Qaddum, near the West Bank city of Nablus, October 7, 2022. (credit: NASSER ISHTAYEH/FLASH90)

Since the beginning of the year, Hamas has increased its activities not only in the West Bank but also in Jerusalem, to the obvious dismay of Abbas and his Fatah faction. Most of these activities take place in mosques and educational and youth centers in the city.

In the West Bank, especially in the areas of Nablus and Jenin, Hamas has succeeded in recruiting dozens of Palestinians, including gunmen who are not necessarily operating under the group’s name.

Why hasn't PA security cracked down on Lion's Den?

Palestinian security sources claimed this week that Hamas was behind the Lions’ Den armed group, whose members are responsible for the latest spate of shooting attacks against IDF soldiers and Jewish settlers in the Nablus area.

By concealing their political affiliation, the gunmen, who are also very active in the Jenin area, are trying to make it look as though they are grassroots activists who don’t belong to any Palestinian faction. The gunmen are aware that once they identify themselves as Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad members, that would place them on a collision course with the PA and its security forces.

This is precisely why the PA has been reluctant to crack down on the gunmen in the West Bank. The PA knows that although the gunmen pose a serious challenge to its rule and standing, it would be difficult to justify a crackdown on young men who present themselves as lone “activists” who are not serving the agenda of any Palestinian faction.

Attempts by senior Palestinian officials to persuade the gunmen in Nablus and Jenin to lay down their weapons have thus far been unsuccessful, despite unconfirmed reports that a few have handed themselves over to the Palestinian security forces in return for being recruited as officers.

A growing concern in PA territories

SOME PALESTINIAN officials in Ramallah are worried that the increased activities of the gunmen are part of a Hamas scheme to extend its control from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank. According to the officials, Mosab Shtayyeh, the senior Hamas operative who was arrested last month by the Palestinian security forces in Nablus, was entrusted with funding and arming the Lions’ Den group.

There’s also growing concern in Ramallah about the rising popularity of Hamas in Jerusalem, particularly in neighborhoods and villages located within the boundaries of the Jerusalem Municipality. Because these areas are under Israeli sovereignty, the PA is not permitted to operate there.

Several PA representatives who attempted to defy the Israeli ban have been arrested by the Israel Police. One of them is Adnan Gheith, the PA governor of Jerusalem, who lives in the village of Silwan and holds an Israeli-issued ID card in his capacity as a permanent resident of Jerusalem.

Israeli police seen on the streets of the central Israeli city of Lod, where last night synagogues and cars were torched as well as shops damaged, by Arab residents rioted in the city, and ongoing this evening. May 12, 2021. (credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)Israeli police seen on the streets of the central Israeli city of Lod, where last night synagogues and cars were torched as well as shops damaged, by Arab residents rioted in the city, and ongoing this evening. May 12, 2021. (credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

In addition, a number of prominent Fatah activists in Jerusalem have also been arrested or summoned for interrogation by the Israeli security forces because of their various activities in the city. They include Shadi Mtour, the secretary-general of Fatah in the Jerusalem area, who is also a holder of an Israeli-issued ID card.

In the past few years, the PA and Fatah representatives in Jerusalem have been forced to cope not only with the Israeli security crackdown but also with what they describe as concerted attempts by Hamas and its supporters to assert their control over the city’s Palestinian population.

“The Israeli clampdown on the Palestinian Authority and Fatah officials in Jerusalem serve the interests of Hamas,” argued a senior Fatah official. “Israel is making a big mistake.”

Although PA and Fatah members are still active in some neighborhoods and villages in Jerusalem, they don’t seem to enjoy the same popularity as their rivals in Hamas, as is the situation in many parts of the West Bank.

True, Hamas does not have a military presence in Jerusalem neighborhoods and villages, but its influence has become evident in the ongoing tensions at al-Haram al-Sharif/the Temple Mount. Last year, Hamas also played a major role in the protests that erupted in Sheikh Jarrah after two Jewish organizations won a court case to evict a number of Arab families from their homes.

During the protests on the Temple Mount and at Sheikh Jarrah, Arabs repeatedly chanted slogans in support of Hamas and its military commander, Mohammed Deif. They also raised Hamas flags and banners. Some even chanted slogans denouncing the PA for its “collaboration” with Israel and failure to assist the Arab residents of Jerusalem.

In response, Fatah activists have also tried to hold a number of political events, including sit-in strikes and rallies, in addition to hanging posters of their faction and photos of Abbas. But the Fatah-orchestrated events have drawn relatively small crowds in neighborhoods and villages, where many families appear to be more supportive of those who are closely associated with Hamas and other Islamist groups.

Yet not all those who oppose the PA and Fatah are necessarily affiliated with Hamas or Hizb ut-Tahrir, a pan-Islamist organization whose stated aim is the re-establishment of the Islamic caliphate and which has a strong presence at the Temple Mount. And not all the young men who take to the streets to hurl stones and Molotov cocktails at police officers are necessarily affiliated with any Palestinian faction.

“Like many Palestinians in the West Bank, the [Arab] residents of Jerusalem don’t trust the Palestinian Authority,” said Khalil Shweiki, a political activist from Silwan. “They see the Palestinian Authority as a very corrupt entity that is working for Israel more than for its people.”

Shweiki, 38, who describes himself as a former Fatah member, went to lengths to stress that he does not support Hamas, despite his disillusionment with the faction he deserted a few years ago.

“The Palestinian Authority has failed to win the hearts and minds of many people,” he added. “The people here have different views; some want Hamas, while others prefer Israel.”

In the past two years, Hamas has been working hard to depict itself as the “defender” of Jerusalem in light of Israeli “conspiracies” allegedly targeting al-Aqsa Mosque and the Arab residents of Jerusalem. Hamas’s main goal is to show the Palestinian public that it’s the only party capable of responding to and deterring Israel from carrying out its “plots.”

As part of these efforts, Hamas appointed one of its operatives, Mohammed Hamadeh, as a “Jerusalem spokesperson.” Hamadeh’s task is to respond to various events and developments linked to the city, thus creating the impression that Hamas is not disconnected from the Palestinian struggle against Israeli measures in Jerusalem.

In this regard, Hamas is seeking to compete with the PA and Fatah, whose representatives comment on events in Jerusalem almost on a daily basis. And like the PA and Fatah, Hamas, too, has been using social media platforms to call on Palestinians to converge on the al-Aqsa Mosque compound to confront “extremist Jewish settlers who storm the holy site.”

Similarly, Hamas has been competing with the PA and Fatah in the fight to foil Israel’s attempt to introduce changes to the curricula in many Arab schools in Jerusalem. Activists from the two rival parties have been pressuring some of the schools to resist the attempt, on the pretext that Israel is trying to erase and distort the Palestinian narrative. Some of the Fatah activists were later summoned for interrogation by the Israeli security forces.

A new intifada?

HAMAS HAS made no secret of its plan to instigate a new intifada in the West Bank and Jerusalem. The Gaza-based group is hoping that the growing violence in the West Bank will further undermine the PA and ultimately bring about its collapse. Its daily calls for an intifada in Jerusalem aim to demonstrate that the terrorist group is spearheading the battle to “liberate” the city and its holy sites, first and foremost the al-Aqsa Mosque compound. Hamas is aware that carrying the banner of “liberating” Jerusalem and the Islamic holy sites resonates with many Muslims in the city and around the world.

The Israeli security forces have succeeded in thwarting several attempts by Hamas to carry out terrorist attacks in the city. Some Hamas cell members arrested a few months ago came from villages and neighborhoods inside Jerusalem. These attempts show that Hamas’s activities in the city are by no means limited to rhetoric.

Hamas considers the increase in terrorist attacks in the West Bank a sign of widespread support for the “armed struggle” against Israel.

Commenting on the general strike declared in Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods and the West Bank on Wednesday in protest of the closure of Shuafat refugee camp by the Israeli security forces after the killing of the female soldier, Hamadeh said: “This general strike affirms the popular support for the path of [armed] resistance against the occupation. The resistance will increase in the coming days; Jerusalem and al-Aqsa Mosque are the heart of the conflict and the fuel of the uprisings.”

For now, it appears that Hamas’s efforts to establish a foothold in Jerusalem have been relatively successful in neighborhoods that are on the other side of the security barrier, such as Shuafat refugee camp, Ras Khamis, Dahiet al-Salam, Kafr Akab and Kalandiya. Although these areas are part of Jerusalem, they have long suffered from the lack of municipal services and law enforcement. The PA, however, is not allowed to operate there, creating a vacuum that is being filled by Hamas and other radical groups.

“Those who don’t want the Palestinian Authority in Jerusalem will get Hamas there,” remarked a former Palestinian cabinet minister and senior member of Fatah. “I’m not sure whether Israel knows what it wants in Jerusalem.”•