TEL AVIV — This year has already been the deadliest Palestinians have experienced in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in many years. But a brazen Israeli special forces operation before dawn Tuesday, which killed five Palestinians, including at least one militant, and wounded 20, was this year's single bloodiest confrontation in the West Bank yet.
Israel's target was not one of its usual suspects, like the Hamas or Islamic Jihad militant groups. It was the Lions' Den, a new renegade group of young armed men, many in their teens and early 20s. They are small in number — analysts estimate between 50 to 100 — but big in influence.
Lions' Den militants have shot at Israeli troops and checkpoints, and sought refuge in the narrow alleyways of the old casbah in the West Bank city of Nablus. The Israeli army says the group has shot dead at least one of its soldiers.
Prime Minister Yair Lapid said Tuesday on Israel Army Radio that much of the country's forces are now focused on their pursuit. "This was a lethal precision strike at the heart of a terrorist cell that was trying to carry out attacks," Lapid said in a statement about Tuesday's raid, in which the Israeli army killed a 31-year-old Lions' Den leader, Wadee al-Huh.
The Israeli army used shoulder-launched missiles during the raid and claimed to have blown up what it said was a bomb lab.
Israeli troops continued their operations, saying they arrested three suspected Lions' Den operatives in Nablus early Wednesday.
The escalating violence comes less than a week before the Israeli elections on Nov. 1.
Here is a brief look at the Lions' Den, and how it offers a glimpse into what the future could bring for the West Bank.
A young generation feels it has little to lose
Palestinian analysts and local community leaders in Nablus describe the group as a new generation of Palestinians who feel they have little to lose.
They don't have personal memories of the costly intifada of the early 2000s that might caution them against violence. They grew up after Israel erected its wall-and-fence barrier and tightened its entry permit regime, so some of their only interactions with Israelis are with occupation-enforcing soldiers or often hostile settlers. They have come of age under an ossified Palestinian leadership that blocks elections and offers no clear path forward to independence, analysts say.
"There's a lack of trust in any political horizon and in the Palestinian Authority. That's led the Palestinian youth to launch their own initiative and their own struggle against the Israeli occupation. And they've taken authority into their own hands," Jamal Tirawi, a prominent activist in Nablus and critic of the Palestinian leadership, tells NPR.
The group's aim is to confront Israeli soldiers when they operate in Palestinian areas – and to present an alternative to the behavior of the official Palestinian security forces, which do not clash with Israeli troops conducting arrest raids.
They amassed a massive TikTok following
The Lions' Den emerged earlier this year when Israel launched near-nightly military raids to pursue Palestinian militants amid a wave of deadly attacks on Israelis. Instead of the usual response by Palestinian youth — throwing stones and improvised explosives — these young men started opening fire at troops instead, often using M-16s smuggled from Israeli army supplies, according to the Israeli military.
The first Lions' Den militant to rise to prominence was Ibrahim al-Nabulsi, 18. He evaded several Israeli arrest attempts, then walked openly through the streets of Nablus, as crowds followed him and filmed him on the social media app TikTok. Israeli special forces killed him in Nablus' casbah in August. Now young Palestinians in Nablus wear necklaces bearing his portrait.
Recently, when the Lions' Den made calls on social media for Palestinians to go out to the streets at a certain hour and shout "God is greatest!" — the calls were widely heeded. For the TikTok generation, admiration for the group is viral.
Israel says pursuing the Lions' Den sparks a "cycle of violence"
Israel's Shin Bet internal security chief Ronen Bar, in a recent speech, acknowledged the "cycle of violence." He said Israeli troops go after militants because the Palestinian Authority's forces refuse to, which leads to firefights and more Palestinian casualties, further undermining the Palestinian security forces and leadership.
There have been attempts by the United Nations to call for calm. The Palestinian Authority mayor of Nablus recently met with Lions' Den members, urging them to consider an amnesty deal with Israel if they turned themselves and their weapons in to the Palestinian security forces. The militants reportedly rejected the offer.
These dynamics reflect a vacuum of leadership in the West Bank, and glimpses of what may come.
The old guard — the Palestinian Authority and their police forces — is losing credibility, and also losing control over pockets of the West Bank like the old city of Nablus. The young militants, meanwhile, are becoming more assertive. Israel is pursuing more targeted attacks against militants, even partially blockading Nablus recently in an attempt to confine them.
"The terrorists acting against us in [the West Bank] need to know there are two alternatives: either prison or the grave. They'll end up in one of the two," Defense Minister Benny Gantz told Israeli Channel 12 TV on Tuesday.
Though Israel is determined to stamp out the Lions' Den, the real significance of the armed group is not its numbers, but the inspiration it sparks in Palestinians throughout the West Bank.
Finally, Palestinians under occupation say, they have heroes they can rally around.