President Joe Biden on Thursday signed an executive order granting the Treasury Department the power to issue sanctions against Israelis complicit in the illegal settlement movement, which has been blamed for provoking tensions between Palestinians and the Israeli government.
In a message to Congress announcing the new sanctions, Mr Biden said he’d declared a national emergency “to deal with the threat posed by the situation in the West Bank, including in particular high levels of extremist settler violence, forced displacement of people and villages, and property destruction”.
“Such actions constitute a serious threat to the peace, security, and stability of the West Bank and Gaza, Israel, and the broader Middle East region and undermine the foreign policy and national security objectives of the United States,” he added.
The text of the executive order states that the “extremist settler violence” in the West Bank has reached “intolerable levels,” and has been undermining “the viability of a two-state solution and ensuring Israelis and Palestinians can attain equal measures of security, prosperity, and freedom”.
It also states that the violence there undermines Israeli security and has “the the potential to lead to broader regional destabilization across the Middle East, threatening United States personnel and interests”.
National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters aboard Air Force One on Thursday that the order is an outgrowth of a memorandum issued by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to the president’s Cabinet in November, which directed executive departments and agencies to “take appropriate action and to develop further policy options for dealing with settler violence in the West Bank,” and comes on the heels of an announcement by Secretary of State Antony Blinken of visa restrictions on certain people involved in the violence.
“The president has spoken very, very clearly on this since the very beginning, that settler violence in the West Bank is unacceptable. And we’ll continue to examine tools at our disposal to deal with it,” he said.
Mr Kirby said the US government does not have plans to target Israeli government officials with sanctions at this time. He also told reporters that the Israeli government was informed of the order before it was announced.
The order allows the Treasury to target Israelis accused of working (sometimes with the backing of Israeli troops or security forces) to illegally force Palestinians from their homes in the West Bank and other regions, using violence, threats or other forms of intimidation in a mass land-grab scheme. In past years, the movement has drawn support from right-wing supporters of Israel in the US and elsewhere.
Some of that violence has continued amid the invasion of the Gaza Strip launched by Israel’s military in response to a deadly Hamas terrorist attack last fall. More than 20,000 Palestinians have died as the bombing and warfare have continued across virtually everywhere in Gaza.
“Assaulting Palestinians, threatening civilians, threatening additional violence if they do not leave their homes, burning fields, destroying property; these are the types of activities that the [executive order] covers,” a senior White House official told reporters on Thursday.
This latest action by the president comes as his administration is facing pressure from Arab-American leaders to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. President Joe Biden has refused to do this, as his officials insist that this will only embolden and aid Hamas militants responsible for the October 7 massacre. But the administration is clearly feeling the growing distrust and anger on the left which led to activists canceling a meeting with Mr Biden’s team in Dearborn, Michigan; the state itself is home to a large community of Arab-Americans whose majority districts swept the president to victory in 2020.
Some Democratic activists have publicly warned that the president is alienating and angering his own base in a year when he will need to mobilise them for a rematch against Donald Trump.