President Joe Biden on Thursday issued an executive order that targets Israeli settlers in the West Bank who have been accused of attacking Palestinians and Israeli peace activists in the occupied territory, imposing financial sanctions and visa bans in an initial round against four individuals.
Those settlers were involved in acts of violence, as well as threats and attempts to destroy or seize Palestinian property, according to the order. The penalties aim to block the four from using the U.S. financial system and bar American citizens from dealing with them. U.S. officials said they were evaluating whether to punish others involved in attacks that have intensified during the Israel-Hamas war.
Biden’s order is a rare step against America’s closest ally in the Mideast who, 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. Netanyahu denounced the U.S. penalties, which his government was notified in advance, U.S. officials said.
Palestinian authorities say some Palestinians have been killed, and rights groups say settlers have torched cars and attacked several small Bedouin communities, forcing evacuations.
“This 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,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement.
Biden 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
The order notes that the violence by settlers undermines U.S. foreign policy objectives, “including the viability of a two-state solution and ensuring Israelis and Palestinians can attain equal measures of security, prosperity, and freedom.”
Biden has reinvigorated calls for an independent Palestinian state that would exist alongside Israel, a goal that has eluded American presidents and Middle East diplomats for decades. Biden has said that finding a way to achieve Palestinian sovereignty once the Israel-Hamas war ends is essential to building a durable peace.
Netanyahu has rejected such an idea throughout his political career and has told U.S. officials he remains opposed to any postwar plan that includes the establishment of a Palestinian state.
The Israeli leader quickly denounced the sanctions. “The vast majority of settlers,” he said in a statement, ”are law-abiding citizens, many of them these days are fighting as conscripts and reservists for the defense of Israel.” He said his country “takes action against law-breakers in every place, and therefore there is no place for exceptional steps on this measure.”
The State Department, in a statement, identified the four settlers and described the accusations against them:
—David Chai Chasdai allegedly led a riot in Huwara in which a Palestinian civilian was killed.
Shalom Zicherman was reportedly filmed assaulting Israeli activists in the West Bank.
—Yinon Levi regularly led a group of settlers from the Meitarim Farm outpost who assaulted Palestinian and Bedouin civilians and threatened them with more violence if they did not leave their homes.
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,” Biden said.