Washington, DC – The United States has imposed sanctions on several Israeli settlers for attacking Palestinian communities in the occupied West Bank, accusing them of undermining stability and security in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
The announcement on Thursday comes amid increasing pressure on President Joe Biden over his unwavering support for Israel’s war on Gaza as he campaigns for re-election in November.
The sanctions target David Chai Chasdai, Einan Tanjil and Yinon Levi, who are accused of assaulting and intimidating Palestinians. They also target Shalom Zickerman, who is accused of assaulting Israeli activists.
The sanctions will freeze the individuals’ assets in the US and restrict financial dealings with them.
Earlier, Axios reported that the Biden administration had considered sanctioning ultranationalist government ministers Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, but decided against the move.
“There are no plans to target with sanctions Israeli government officials at this time,” White House national security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Thursday, adding that the US informed the Israeli government before announcing the sanctions.
The White House also announced a new decree to penalise perpetrators of “extremist settler violence” in the West Bank.
US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a statement that settler violence “poses a grave threat to peace, security, and stability in the West Bank, Israel, and the Middle East region, and threatens the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States”.
The executive order coincides with Biden’s visit on Thursday to Michigan, a Midwestern swing state that is home to a large Arab American community.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to reject the US move, saying that the overwhelming majority of West Bank settlers are “law-abiding citizens”.
“Israel acts against all Israelis who break the law, everywhere; therefore, exceptional measures are unnecessary,” his office said in a statement.
Reporting from Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford cited Palestinians as saying that Israeli authorities do not hold settlers accountable for attacks.
“In many, many incidents, we see settlers acting with either the tacit support or the actual physical support of the Israeli military in these attacks,” Stratford said.
The announcement comes as the Biden administration continues to work to secure $14bn in additional aid to the Israeli government, whose forces often accompany and protect settlers during their attacks on Palestinians.
Israeli authorities rarely prosecute suspects in violence against Palestinians. Last month, Israeli settlers and an off-duty police officer fatally shot 17-year-old Palestinian American Tawfiq Ajaq in the West Bank, according to his family.
The Biden administration has called for an investigation into the case, but Israeli authorities have not made any arrests in the killing of the US teenager.
Raids by Israeli settlers and soldiers against West Bank towns and villages have increased since the outbreak of the war on Gaza on October 7, killing hundreds of Palestinians.
“This [executive order] will allow the United States to issue financial sanctions against those directing or participating in certain actions, including acts or threats of violence against civilians, intimidating civilians to cause them to leave their homes, destroying or seizing property, or engaging in terrorist activity in the West Bank,” Sullivan said.
In the same statement, the US national security adviser emphasised Washington’s support for what he called “Israel’s right to defend itself”.
Despite growing calls for a ceasefire globally, and mounting evidence of Israeli abuses, the Biden administration has pushed on with its support for the war on Gaza, arguing that Hamas must be eliminated.
Washington says it has been in discussions with Israel to minimise civilian casualties and allow more aid into Gaza. But Biden has so far resisted calls to use his administration’s assistance to Israel as leverage to pressure the US ally to end rights violations against Palestinians.
Israeli leaders – including Netanyahu – have been openly defying the Biden administration in their vocal rejection of the establishment of a Palestinian state.
“Good that Biden will impose targeted sanctions on Israeli settlers who attack Palestinians,” human rights advocate Kenneth Roth wrote in a social media post.
“Now how about conditioning [or stopping] military aid and arms sales to Israel until it stops bombing and besieging Palestinian civilians in Gaza.”
CAIR urges targeting Israeli officials
The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), an advocacy group, also played down the significance of the sanctions, saying that Biden should penalise Israeli officials responsible for settler violence and end US support for the war on Gaza.
“It makes no sense for the Biden administration to oppose killing Palestinian civilians in the West Bank while enabling the killing of Palestinian civilians in Gaza,” CAIR said in a statement.
For his part, Abed Ayoub, executive director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), called the sanctions “empty”, saying that they are far from groundbreaking.
Ayoub said the White House sees the sanctions as a “safe way” to appeal to some voters who are angry over Biden’s backing for the war on Gaza.
“That’s the intent of all of this. That’s why it was released today during Biden’s trip to Michigan,” Ayoub told Al Jazeera.
He added that targeting a few individual settlers risks normalising the broader settlement movement and called for stricter measures to ensure accountability.
“We know that many of these settlers are American. Open those settlers up the civil and criminal liability in the US,” he said.