Biden imposes sanctions over 'intolerable' Israeli settler violence

Israeli security forces deploy while clashing with Palestinians during the funeral of 19-year-old Labib Damidi, who was shot dead by settlers in the occupied West Bank town of Huwara on October 6, 2023 (Jaafar ASHTIYEH)
Israeli security forces deploy while clashing with Palestinians during the funeral of 19-year-old Labib Damidi, who was shot dead by settlers in the occupied West Bank town of Huwara on October 6, 2023 (Jaafar ASHTIYEH)

The United States on Thursday imposed sanctions on four Israeli settlers as President Joe Biden said violence against Palestinian civilians in the West Bank had reached intolerable levels.

The sanctions marked a rare US move against Israelis as war rages with Hamas in the Gaza Strip following the militants' October 7 attack. It came as Biden traveled to Michigan, where many in the sizable Arab American community have voiced anger over his support for Israel.

"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 and constitutes a serious threat to the peace, security and stability," Biden said in an executive order laying the groundwork for US actions.

The State Department later announced sanctions against four settlers. Any assets they hold in the United States will be blocked, with Americans forbidden from financial transactions with them.

The four include David Chai Chasdai who is accused of leading a riot in the flashpoint town of Huwara in which Palestinian homes were torched and a Palestinian civilian killed following an attack that killed two Israelis.

Other targets included Yinon Levi, who is accused of leading a group of settlers from the unauthorized outpost of Meitarim Farm who have assaulted Palestinian and Bedouin civilians, burned their fields and destroyed their property.

"Israel must do more to stop violence against civilians in the West Bank and hold accountable those responsible for it," said Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has repeatedly raised settler violence with Israel and leaves shortly on a new trip to the region.

Blinken warned against actions that jeopardize the eventual creation of a Palestinian state, an idea that is strongly opposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right government which includes settler advocates.

Israel criticized the sanctions by its close ally, saying the "overwhelming majority" of its citizens in the West Bank were law-abiding.

"Israel acts against all Israelis who break the law, everywhere; therefore, exceptional measures are unnecessary," said a statement by Netanyahu's office.

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said that Israel had prosecuted three of the four settlers but that more action was needed.

"We will not hesitate to take additional actions as necessary," he said.

- Most violent year on record -

The action marks the first financial sanctions against settlers although the Biden administration earlier announced that it would refuse visas for extremists involved in violence.

Biden has defended Israel's right to respond, and resisted calls to seek a ceasefire, after the Hamas attack inside Israel on October 7 killed around 1,140 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.

Biden, however, has also voiced exasperation with Netanyahu and the high toll on civilians as Israel pounds the Gaza Strip with a stated goal of eradicating Hamas.

At least 26,900 people in Gaza, most of them women and children, have been killed, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

Arab Americans largely backed Biden as he defeated Trump in 2020 and, while a small part of the national population, they could swing the election in Michigan, which is critical for the Democratic president's success in an expected rematch against Trump in November.

The mayor of one Detroit suburb is refusing to see Biden on his trip due to his refusal to press Israel to end the military campaign.

Israeli settlers killed at least 10 Palestinians and torched dozens of homes in the occupied West Bank in 2023, making it the "most violent" year on record for settler attacks, according to the human rights group Yesh Din.

About 490,000 settlers live among approximately three million Palestinians in the West Bank, in settlements that are considered illegal under international law.

Biden has largely returned to historic US opposition to the settlements after Trump switched gears and declined to criticize the outposts, with his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, visiting a settlement late in his term.

The Biden administration is also renewing calls for the creation of a Palestinian state, an idea strongly opposed by Netanyahu's government.