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Biden signs order approving sanctions for Israeli settlers who attacked Palestinians in the West Bank

Palestinian shepherds in West Bank under attack
Palestinian shepherds in West Bank under attack by militant Israeli settlers 02:53

Washington — President Biden on Thursday issued an executive order that targets Israeli settlers in the West Bank who have been attacking Palestinians in the occupied territory, imposing financial sanctions and visa bans in an initial round against four individuals.

The order authorizes sanctions against those involved in acts of violence in the West Bank, as well as threats and attempts to destroy or seize Palestinian property. The penalties block them from using the U.S. financial system and bar American citizens from dealing with them.

The State Department identified the four individuals hit with sanctions as Israeli settlers who have attacked Palestinians in the past. U.S. officials said they were evaluating whether to punish others involved in attacks that have intensified during the Israel-Hamas war.

Palestinian authorities say some Palestinians have been killed, and rights groups say settlers have torched cars and attacked several small Bedouin communities, forcing evacuations.

"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," Mr. Biden said in the order. "They also undermine the security of Israel and have the potential to lead to broader regional destabilization across the Middle East, threatening United States personnel and interests."

Neighbors of Mohammad Abed inspect Abed's home and farmland damaged by Israeli settlers whom he accused of vandalizing his property, in Shaeb Al-Botum in the West Bank on Nov. 15, 2023.
Neighbors of Mohammad Abed inspect Abed's home and farmland damaged by Israeli settlers whom he accused of vandalizing his property, in Shaeb Al-Botum in the West Bank on Nov. 15, 2023. Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times

The president is facing growing criticism for his administration's strong support of Israel as casualties mount in the conflict, which began when Hamas, the militant group that rules Gaza, attacked Israel on Oct. 7.

His order is a rare step against America's closest ally in the Mideast who, Mr. Biden says, has the right to defend itself. But the Democratic president has pressed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to show greater restraint in its military operations aimed at rooting out Hamas.

Mr. Biden has spoken out against retaliatory attacks by Israeli settlers and pledged that those those responsible for the violence will be held accountable. He said in late October that the violence by "extremist settlers" amounted to "pouring gasoline" on the already burning fires in the Middle East. "It has to stop. They have to be held accountable. It has to stop now," Mr. Biden said.

Israel Defense Forces stepped up raids across the West Bank after the war began. Hamas militants are present in the West Bank, but largely operate underground because of Israel's tight grip on the territory. Palestinians have accused the Israeli military of not preventing attacks by settlers or, at times, of even protecting those settlers.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan met on Wednesday at the White House with Ron Dermer, Israel's minister of strategic affairs. U.S. officials said the Israeli government was notified in advance of the sanctions.

The order gives the Treasury Department the authority to impose financial sanctions on settlers engaged in violence, but is not meant to target U.S. citizens. A substantial number of the settlers in the West Bank hold U.S. citizenship, and they would be prohibited under U.S. law from transacting with the sanctioned individuals.

U.S. lawmakers have zeroed in on the role of Americans or dual citizens in the settler violence and intimidation. In a letter last month, Sen. Ben Cardin, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, asked the White House to take action against any U.S. citizens involved in attacks against Palestinians. He said that could include criminal charges and financial sanctions.

"There's got to be a strong message against the extreme activities taken by some settlers on the West Bank, jeopardizing the lives of Palestinians as well as the peace in the region," Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, told reporters Thursday.

Mr. Biden's order was first reported by Politico.

Officials said there are no plans to penalize far-right Israeli ministers who have defended the violence by Israeli settlers and have called for the expansion of settlements.

The new executive order comes as Mr. Biden was set to visit Michigan on Thursday to rally support from union members in a key presidential battleground state. The Democratic president has faced sharp criticism from Arab and Muslim leaders over his handling of the war with Hamas, and the shadow of the conflict has some Democrats worrying that it could have a major effect on the outcome in the November election.

The president's campaign team has already seen alarming signs of the growing rift with Michigan's Arab American community.

Last week, the president's campaign manager, Julie Chavez Rodriguez traveled to suburban Detroit and found a number of community leaders unwilling to meet with her. Some frustrated by Mr. Biden's Israel policy are working to discourage voters from supporting the president in the general election.

The State Department announced in December it would impose travel bans on extremist Jewish settlers implicated in a rash of recent attacks on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

The department did not announce individual visa bans. But officials said at the time the bans would cover "dozens" of settlers and their families, with more to come if the violence continued.

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