Israel has been pressing the Palestinian Authority (PA) to disarm and disband groups like the Lion’s Den, and to a degree, they have attempted to do as much. Over recent months, as Israeli forces have been systematically taking out members of the terrorist group during Operation Break The Wave, the PA has taken custody of the Lion’s Den members who have turned themselves in. However, the PA has so far stopped short of physically confronting these militant groups themselves.
According to Palestinian researcher and expert on Palestinian issues, Dr. Tahani Mustafa, there are various pressures from within and without Palestinian society that seriously impair the ability of the PA to confront radicals like the Lion’s Den and other groups like it from the public arena.
“One of the things with the Lion’s Den, the reason why it gained so much traction, was because it provided something like a cross-party alliance. It tried to transcend... factional divides,” said Mustafa is an analyst focusing on Palestinian concerns at the International Crisis Group. She has a background in security reform and security governance in the West Bank. Additionally, she’s worked with the United States Security Coordinator (USSC) and the Jordanian Public Security Directorate.
“One of the things with the Lion’s Den, the reason why it gained so much traction, was because it provided something like a cross-party alliance. It tried to transcend... factional divides.”Dr. Tahani Mustafa
Now, her work focuses mainly on the issue of post-Abbas succession as well as broader issues in Palestinian spheres such as politics, security, governance, and social issues. “And that’s where its mass appeal came from. It was trying to transcend the divisions that have led Palestinians to the situation they’re in now and that was really appealing for a majority of Palestinians. But at the same time, their fear of supporting groups like this [comes from] their trauma of knowing that when the system breaks down, Palestinians ultimately pay a very high price.”
Why isn’t the Palestinian Authority (PA) doing more to combat the militants?
Amid the various factors at play, Mustafa does not believe that apathy towards or support for militant groups explains Fatah’s inaction in confronting them. In fact, the rise in popularity of militant groups is an apparent challenge to the Palestinian establishment. And, in a political game where maintaining power is paramount, it seems unlikely that those in the PA would be purposely supporting groups such as the Lion’s Den. So, while the PA may support any action that the pro-Palestinian narrative calls resistance, it is still in opposition to these groups.
As power was successfully wrested from Fatah in the Gaza Strip by Hamas in 2007, a situation wherein similar groups are gaining momentum in the West Bank and Judea Samaria is sure to be making the PA nervous. Furthermore, while Fatah still maintains power, Mustafa acknowledges that if the Lion’s Den and similar groups continue to make gains in popularity, the PA could potentially lose their grip on power.
One of the stumbling blocks that is inhibiting the PA is general dysfunction.
With Mahmoud Abbas, the 87-year-old president of the PA, many Fatah elites are preoccupied with the conflict over who may succeed him. In large part because of this, the PA’s ineptitude and inability to focus on its constituency has, in the eyes of many Palestinians, caused it to lose a degree of credibility as the legitimate governing body of the Palestinian people.
But there’s also a larger problem, according to Mustafa. Even if the Fatah leadership were able to direct their efforts more productively, they would still be encumbered by Israeli red tape.
“[W]hen the Israelis were saying that the (Palestinian) security forces weren’t doing enough, how can they do enough? You won’t allow them to have the right kinds of weapons in order to fight the kinds of groups and weaponry that they’re having to deal with on the ground. You can’t fight M-16 rifles with pistols, which is what the Palestinian National Security Forces (PNSF) are at best allowed,” she says.
While it may be true that Israel is not directly enabling the Palestinians to acquire weapons that could then be turned on Israelis themselves, Mustafa does concede that the Palestinians can and do still manage to get the kind of weaponry they require to potentially confront terrorist militias from regional countries like Pakistan, Nigeria and Iran. Indeed, it’s not a secret that the PNSF are equipped with assault rifles, such as Kalashnikovs.
Still, that the PA would need to rely on regional states, especially those mentioned, is obviously not the best or most dependable way for them to acquire small arms.
Palestinians lament another problem for the PA: the ability to show up to the battlefield. The claim is that these extremist groups are operating in addition to Area A cities, such as Nablus and Jenin, they also conduct activities in Areas B and C, where Israel seriously restricts the PA’s mobility.
The PNSF faces restrictions, such as being unable to move between areas while in uniform, move freely between the different pockets of Area A, or enter Areas B and C without permission and coordination from Israel, which could, itself, take between 11 to 22 hours.
“And then,” Mustafa adds, “you can’t even go in with the kinds of logistics you need, whether it’s your uniform, whether it’s weaponry work, whatever. So Israel won’t even allow them to physically operate and yet it’s blaming them for not being able to clamp down on these groups.”
However, it should be noted that much of the activity of these militant groups takes place in PA strongholds, such as Nablus and Jenin. This would seem to mitigate, at least to an extent, the logistical challenges plaguing the PA.
What is the PA currently doing?
Aside from whether the PA can’t, won’t, or some combination thereof physically confront militant groups in Judea, Samaria and the West Bank, they still have their own well-established methods of keeping a handle on the growth of these groups.
For instance, the PA has a longstanding practice of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR), whereby militants are brought into the fold of the Palestinian establishment to transition them out of radicalism.
They also take preventative measures for people who are likely at risk of becoming radical.
One method the PA uses is when a Palestinian is killed, a PNSF unit commander will go to the family and hire their male relatives to bring them into the fold of the security forces. These people are then put into roles where they can be monitored.
This serves the purpose of preventing any further radicalization and indebting those individuals to those unit commanders. As a result, these commanders gain networks they can leverage for their own benefit when there are internal struggles in the PA.
As a whole, though, this clearly strengthens the grip the PA has on its people. However, it also may explain why so many on the Fatah payroll may be associated with and espouse the ideologies of other, more militant groups.
What Israeli actions are the Palestinians perceiving?
Although it may be less visible, Israel, for its part, also has diplomatic tools in its arsenal.
“[T]he Israelis, even at this time, had tried to pursue numerous avenues. It wasn’t just a hard security crackdown. Actually, what surprised a lot of Palestinians was the fact that the Israelis resorted to more diplomatic initiatives, like getting the PA to negotiate with people on the ground, using that man on the ground to try and infiltrate some of these groups and calm them down.” Mustafa notes.
However, the Palestinian analyst questioned why Israel allowed these extremist groups to attain the size, strength and coordination that they ended up achieving in the first place.
“Normally, Israel’s first resort would be to go in and clamp down immediately and trying to try to preemptively deal with it before it gets out of hand to [this] degree... It was bizarre that Israel allowed it to fester the way that it did, rather than just bringing in a full-on battalion and dealing with the issue head-on.”
What do they think about it?
In fact, apparently, within the PNSF, there are those who have a feeling that Israel is intentionally attempting to create a degree of chaos, lawlessness and general instability in the PA. Mustafa voiced affirmation that she herself agrees with that assessment.
Furthermore, Mustafa added that “a lot of Palestinians are... sensing from the Israeli side... that Israel is actually trying to escalate the situation on the ground. For some reason, Israel seems to have this concerted policy of weakening [and] shrinking the PA [while also blaming] the PA for not being able to manage the situation.”
Mustafa warns that Israel’s continued uptick in raids is just festering anger on the ground.
If, consequentially, more and more Palestinians are losing faith in the more moderate establishment leadership and are being drawn to groups like the Lion’s Den, then obviously the Israeli raids themselves are unsustainable.
Perhaps there is a possible solution whereby Israel could help facilitate and empower the PA to tackle extremist groups but such efforts have been tried before with mixed results.
Ultimately, though, general ineptitude on behalf of the PA expectedly creates anger on behalf of the Palestinians towards their leadership. However, this becomes an Israeli issue, as well.
“Palestinian society has this role where when we’re frustrated with each other... we take it out on Israel. That’s... the thing that Palestinians have, which is what Israel doesn’t really quite grasp or foreign analysts don’t necessarily grasp, is that the... danger isn’t for the PA, it’s for Israel itself. When Palestinians get frustrated, they’re not going to take that out on other Palestinians, even if it’s the PA. They will always end up taking it out on Israelis...” Mustafa says.
Rising Support for Extremists
None of the pressures that Palestinians see as driving them toward militant groups such as the Lion’s Den are showing any signs of easing up. While Israeli operations targeting the leaders of these groups have been successful, they are undoubtedly temporary measures and are mostly effective until these groups are able to reorganize.
For instance, while Israel has taken out numerous Lion’s Den activists, the extremist militia nevertheless managed to hold a large rally this week in Nablus.
In fact, support for extremist ideologies seems to be rapidly increasing among Palestinians, including among educated Palestinian youth. The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR), in an analysis from November of this year, demonstrates this.
The analysis, which answers why Fatah’s youth movement at Birzeit University lost to Hamas’s Islamic Bloc in the May student elections, reveals that in this year’s student elections, the Islamic Bloc won the majority of the student vote for the first time.
This is an increase over recent years when, although the Islamic block has often won the most seats in the student government, this still represented less than half of the total student body. Additionally, according to the Palestinian research center, between 2007 and 2015, “al Shabiba (Fatah’s youth movement) won all Birzeit University student elections.”
Furthermore, according to a recent public opinion poll conducted by the PCPSR, “72% of the (Palestinian) public (84% in Gaza and 65% in the West Bank) says they are in favor of forming armed groups such as the Lions’ Den, which do not take orders from the PA and are not part of the PA security services.”
This same study reveals widespread fears among Palestinians of the potential ramifications of the incoming Israeli government, which is said to be the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. This is likely a large factor driving Palestinians to support more extreme groups. Obviously, the more Palestinians feel put in a box by the Israeli leadership, the more they will turn to radical elements within their society such as the Lion’s Den or other extremist militant groups.
Consequentially, as for those locally and abroad hoping to see an indication of a coming de-escalation in Israeli-Palestinian tensions, they will likely remain disappointed for the foreseeable future.
Seth Frantzman, Anna Ahronheim and Khaled Abu Toameh contributed to this report.