The pre-election period is always a sensitive time. Every act will always be perceived through a political prism. But, given Israel’s ongoing security challenges and perpetual cycle of elections, some things need to be kept above the political fray. Thus, this week’s action by Israeli security forces against the so-called Lions’ Den terrorist group in Nablus should be praised.
It carried risks – firstly to the soldiers and security personnel involved, and secondly a political risk to both Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, both of whom see themselves as contenders for the post of prime minister after the November 1 ballot.
But inaction can also be costly, especially in this case. Israel’s terror crackdown, Operation Break the Wave, was launched in March following the increasing violence which has taken more than 20 lives in Israel.
The Lions' Den - small but effective
Despite their bombastic name – chosen obviously to project an image of strength and courage – nothing is more cowardly than the sort of attacks the Lions’ Den carry out. Although the terrorist group is still relatively small, Lions’ Den gunmen are behind a series of attacks, including the drive-by shooting in which St.-Sgt. Ido Baruch was killed near the community of Shavei Shomron in Samaria earlier this month.
Believed to be only a few dozen strong, the group was clearly aiming to go further, in size, scope and territory. What starts in Nablus doesn’t stay there. For instance, Tamer al-Kilani – who was killed this week when his motorcycle blew up in what was widely considered to be an Israeli-targeted assassination operation – was reportedly personally involved in several attacks. These include numerous shootings around Nablus, throwing a grenade at IDF soldiers near Havat Gilad, sending a Nablus man to place a bomb at a gas station in Kedumim, and more notably, dispatching a terrorist armed with a submachine gun and pipe bombs to carry out a large-scale attack in Tel Aviv. Fortunately, this was prevented by alerting police officers.
On Tuesday night and Wednesday, Israeli forces continued to crack down on the Lion’s Den, killing five terrorist suspects and arresting others in a complex operation that involved specifically targeting the homes where they were holed up in the Nablus Casbah. Among those killed was Wadee al-Houh, 31. Don’t waste your tears on him. He is considered to have been a senior founder of the Lions’ Den, along with Ibrahim al-Nabulsi, who was killed by Israeli forces a few weeks ago. Among the terrorist attacks in which Houh was involved was the one in which St.-Sgt. Baruch fell.
Before belittling Operation Break the Wave's anti-terrorism campaign as overkill, consider that major terrorist organizations start as small terror cells armed with guns and a twisted ideology. Every successful attack inspires copycat attacks while a growing following on TikTok and other social media platforms encourages potential recruits to join.
The IDF operations send an important message of deterrence: Terrorists hiding in “safe houses” are not safe. The signal is inevitably being picked up elsewhere. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad leaders in Gaza, for example, are already aware of the need to constantly keep on the move and change communication methods.
The elimination of Kilani and the very precise Israeli operations in Nablus were clearly the result of good intelligence. This acts not only as a deterrent, it is demoralizing for the terrorists. Above all, it means – as The Jerusalem Post’s Khaled Abu Toameh noted – that the terrorists will now need to devote more time and energy to avoid being tracked down and taken out. This does not mean the group won’t rally and attempt more attacks, but it does limit their freedom to act.
There is, of course, a danger that the Lions’ Den terrorists, like wounded dangerous animals, will carry on fighting to the death. Revenge is a powerful incentive, particularly in a culture fueled by warped values of “martyrdom.” The terrorists might feel they literally have nothing to lose on earth and everything to gain in the next world.
Although they are not considered to be affiliated with other, larger, Palestinian terrorist organizations such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad or Fatah, the Lions’ Den is happily carrying out the same dirty work. The relative calm regarding attacks from Gaza could also be seen in this light. Reluctant to risk full-scale Israeli retaliation for a serious round of rocket attacks, Hamas’s leadership does not mind the lion cubs acting as mosquitoes, sucking Israeli blood in small amounts at a time.
Palestinian factions called for a general strike and a “day of rage” in Nablus and elsewhere in solidarity with those killed. On the other hand, there have been so many days of rage, it might make more sense to announce when there will be instead a day, inshallah, of peace and calm.
Last week, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh visited a mourning tent in the Jenin refugee camp, another hotbed of terrorism, paying a condolence call on families of Palestinians who had been killed by Israeli forces. Shtayyeh declared: “... the blood of martyrs and the darkness of the jail cells that our prisoners are forced to endure will not be in vain.”
This week, as Abu Toameh reported, PA presidential spokesperson Nabil Abu Rudaineh announced that PA head Mahmoud Abbas was closely following the situation in Nablus and “praising the steadfastness of the residents who are defending their land.”
So much for potential peace partners. It has long been clear that the PA has been fostering terrorism through its “pay-for-slay” program, rewarding jailed terrorists and the families of terrorists who have been killed, and through incitement in the educational system and its anti-normalization policy. Still, the aging and weakened Abbas is under attack close to home for corruption and his unrelenting rule – he’s now in the 17th year of his four-year term. He might be keeping one eye on Israel’s anti-terror campaign, but he is keeping the other on his deadly rivals in Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian factions. He doesn’t want Hamas or an upstart group taking over the West Bank Palestinian Authority areas the way they did in Gaza.
Nazareth-born Hadash-Ta’al MK Aida Touma-Suleiman created an uproar in Israel after she referred to the dead Lions’ Den terrorists as “our martyrs” in a Facebook post, but no one was shocked – or even surprised. If she thought such a declaration would garner a few more votes in next week’s election, she might be correct – but it’s doubtful the votes will go to the Arab parties. Every extremist statement such as this bolsters the Right.
Last year’s Arab riots as rockets rained down on Israel from Gaza in Operation Guardian of the Walls seriously damaged trust in the wider Israeli society. Ongoing violence, not just in Judea and Samaria, but also in Jerusalem, the Negev and other areas with a high mixed population, is a factor in the phenomenal rise of the far-Right’s Itamar Ben-Gvir in pre-election polls. Next week’s election will show to what extent this translates into actual votes.
News this week of the arrest of a terror cell of Israeli Arabs in the North did nothing to boost trust. The main suspect worked as a software engineer at the major communications company Cellcom, which includes the IDF and police among its clients. He was allegedly gathering information for Hamas with the goal of disrupting Cellcom’s systems during a military operation or war. Note, he was a well-paid, well-educated software engineer and Israeli citizen with voting rights, not the beloved stereotype of a poor, disenfranchised Palestinian. How much harm did he and Touma-Suleiman do to their own community? And never forget that terrorism does not differentiate: Bombs, rockets and shooting attacks claim victims of different faiths. Arab voters – all Israeli voters – deserve better than Touma-Suleiman and her ilk.
The government and security forces did the right thing in taking action against the terrorist group while it is still small and locally based in Nablus. The pride in this Lions’ Den deserves a downfall. The sooner, the better.