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SETTLER SANCTIONS

Biden issues sweeping sanctions targeting ‘extremist’ Israeli settlers

U.S. officials did not rule out the possibility that the sanctions could later target Israeli officials

Samuel Corum/Getty Images

President Joe Biden

President Joe Biden on Thursday signed an executive order sanctioning Israeli settlers who have committed violence against Palestinians, the strongest punitive action ever taken by a U.S. administration against Israeli settlers, a move that was swiftly condemned by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The White House described the move as an attempt to “address actions that undermine peace, security and stability in the West Bank.”

The White House announced four Israelis who will face financial sanctions, including the alleged ringleader of a 2023 riot in the Palestinian town of Huwara. Three of them have already faced criminal prosecution in Israel.

“These actions undermine the foreign policy objectives of the United States, including the viability of a two-state solution and ensuring Israelis and Palestinians can attain equal measures of security, prosperity, and freedom,” Biden said in the executive order, referring to recent settler violence against Palestinians. The new policy blocks those sanctioned from accessing any financial assets in the United States or otherwise engaging with the U.S. financial system. It also bars them from traveling to the U.S. 

The executive order comes amid fears from some Biden campaign officials that the president’s support of Israel following the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks could jeopardize his reelection chances. 

The policy was announced just before Biden flew to Michigan, home to the country’s largest Arab American population, for campaign events. Earlier this week, Biden’s campaign manager met with Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), a Palestinian American who has attacked Biden for his stance on the war in Gaza.

A senior Biden administration official said on Thursday the actions fit into a “holistic approach” to the ongoing crisis, “not just in Gaza, but the larger context — Israel, Gaza, West Bank and the larger reason.” 

The executive order follows a December announcement from the State Department that the U.S. will bar certain “extremist settlers” from receiving visas to travel to the U.S., a move that caused confusion over its reach and lack of transparency. Thursday’s executive order signals that Washington believes Jerusalem is not doing enough to stem the rising incidents of Israeli settlers targeting Palestinians in the West Bank.

The executive order issues very broad guidelines for who might be targeted by the sanctions. They can apply to anyone who is “responsible or complicit in” or who “directly engaged or attempted to engage in” actions that include “directing, enacting, implementing, enforcing or failing to enforce policies — that threaten the peace, security or stability of the West Bank.”

Israeli officials quickly spoke out against the measure, criticizing the U.S. for wading into Israeli matters of criminal justice and questioning the premise that settler violence is a growing problem that warrants a U.S. response.

“The overwhelming majority of residents in Judea and Samaria are law-abiding citizens, many of whom are currently fighting — as conscripts and reservists — to defend Israel,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “Israel acts against all Israelis who break the law, everywhere; therefore, exceptional measures are unnecessary.” 

U.S. officials did not rule out the possibility that the sanctions could target Israeli officials like Itamar Ben-Gvir, the national security minister who is closely affiliated with extremist groups in the West Bank. They did not deny that the executive order gave Biden that power. 

“That is not something that is currently under contemplation,” the senior official said. 

John Kirby, the National Security Council’s coordinator for strategic communications, echoed those comments. “There’s no plans to target with sanctions Israeli government officials at this time,” said Kirby. 

The sanctions are a “weapon of mass destruction in the sanctions world and the targeting is extremely broad in who the [Secretaries] of State and Treasury have authorities to hit,” Joel Braunold, managing director of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, wrote on X. The policy “gives them [the] ability to target heads of government entities who threaten the peace, security and stability of the West Bank or who plan order or direct acts of violence targeting civilians.”

The executive order could also target Palestinians in the West Bank who attack Israeli civilians, officials said. But the four people targeted by the sanctions are all Israeli. A spokesperson for the National Security Council declined to say whether any Palestinians would also be targeted.

“I would just emphasize also this [executive order] is non-discriminatory. It applies to Israelis and Palestinians alike. It applies to foreign nationals and those who are engaged in acts of violence on the West Bank and undermining stability there,” the senior official said. 

The executive order made clear that the Biden administration is seeking to primarily target Israeli settlers. Biden finds “that the situation in the West Bank — in particular high levels of extremist settler violence, forced displacement of people and villages, and property destruction — has reached intolerable levels,” he said in the announcement, which did not mention terror attacks against Jews in the West Bank.

“Israel must do more to stop violence against civilians in the West Bank and hold accountable those responsible for it,” Secretary of State Tony Blinken said in a statement on Thursday.

The new sanctions mean that any American citizen who has a financial relationship with the four targeted individuals could face consequences. Guidance sent from the Treasury Department to compliance officers at U.S. banks included several red flags that financial institutions should consider when determining whether transactions are suspicious — among them, payments to nonprofits that have links to violent extremist groups in the West Bank or purchases of military gear for non-government users in Israel. 

Some in Israel warned that the executive order draws too close of a comparison between Hamas and the Israeli settlers.

Today’s order “is meant to create a moral equivalency between Hamas and Jewish attacks,” Yaakov Katz, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute and former Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief, wrote on X. “These violent settlers should all be arrested and tried by Israel, but to issue this executive order now and to impose sanctions is to try and tell a story of how the US is tough on both sides.”

J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami said the sanctions draw an apt comparison between Hamas terrorists and violent settlers.

“Just as the United States has rightly doubled down on sanctioning terrorists and terror organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah that have targeted Israelis for decades, so too must it take steps against those who engage in terrorism against Palestinians,” Ben-Ami said in a statement.

Halie Soifer, CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, also praised the move, comparing it to the five rounds of sanctions Biden has issued against Hamas since the Oct. 7 terror attacks in Israel. “The Biden White House could not be more supportive of Israel and efforts to bring about regional security,” Soifer said.

A Democratic Majority for Israel spokesperson was more circumspect about the policy. “There is no excuse for vigilante violence by anyone anywhere. Criminals should be treated as such by the U.S. and by Israel,” said Rachel Rosen, the group’s chief communications officer. “We are pleased police statistics show Israel has reduced settler violence and hope that trend continues until the problem is eliminated entirely.”

The Republican Jewish Coalition slammed the move, calling it “cold, calculated politics” on the day Biden travels to Michigan to campaign. Biden is “desperate for some sort of political ‘win’ with his fervently anti-Israel base in the Democratic Party,” the group said in a statement.

An AIPAC spokesperson declined to comment.

U.S. officials did not say when or if additional people will be targeted beyond the four announced on Thursday.

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