President Joe Biden has taken a decisive step to curb the violence in the West Bank by issuing an executive order that targets Israeli settlers who have been accused of attacking Palestinians and Israeli peace activists in the occupied territory. The order, announced on Thursday, imposes financial sanctions and visa bans on four individuals who have been involved in acts of violence, threats, arson, and property destruction against Palestinians. The order also applies to any Palestinians who commit similar actions, and warns that more individuals could be sanctioned in the future.
This is a rare and significant action by the U.S. administration against its closest ally in the Middle East, who Biden says has the right to defend itself. But the Democratic president has also pressed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to show greater restraint in its military operations aimed at rooting out Hamas, the militant group that rules Gaza. The war, which began when Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, has killed more than 2,000 Palestinians and 13 Israelis, and displaced tens of thousands of people.
While much of the world’s attention has been focused on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, settler attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank have surged since Oct. 7. According to the United Nations, at least 242 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 2023 by the army and settlers, compared to 171 in 2022. Settlers have stormed Palestinian villages, beaten residents, torched homes and destroyed olive groves and farming equipment. Some of the attacks have been captured on video and circulated on social media, sparking outrage and condemnation.
Biden’s 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.
The order also reflects Biden’s commitment to uphold human rights and the rule of law, as well as to counter the rise of extremism and terrorism in the region. The order states that the violence by settlers “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 sanctions are designed to block the four individuals from using the U.S. financial system and bar American citizens from dealing with them. The U.S. will also freeze any property and interest that the designated individuals have in the U.S. and deny their entry into the U.S. The names of the individuals have not been disclosed yet, but according to U.S. officials, they include a settler who initiated a riot in the West Bank that resulted in the death of a Palestinian civilian, and another settler who assaulted Palestinian farmers and left-wing Israeli activists who sought to protect the Palestinians’ farms.
The Biden administration, which notified the Israeli government about the sanctions, said it was evaluating whether to punish others involved in attacks that have intensified during the Israel-Hamas war. The order also authorizes the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Treasury to designate additional individuals or entities who are responsible for or complicit in the violence.
The order has been welcomed by human rights groups and Palestinian officials, who have long called for accountability and justice for the victims of settler violence. They also urged the international community to follow suit and take action against the Israeli occupation and settlement expansion, which they consider illegal under international law.
However, the order has also drawn criticism from some Israeli officials and settler leaders, who have accused Biden of interfering in Israel’s internal affairs and undermining its sovereignty. They also claimed that the order was biased and unfair, as it did not address the violence and terror perpetrated by Palestinians against Israelis. They argued that the settlers have the right to live and defend themselves in their ancestral homeland, and that the U.S. should support Israel’s efforts to combat Hamas and other enemies.
The order is likely to further strain the already tense relationship between Biden and Netanyahu, who have clashed over several issues, including the Iran nuclear deal, the Jerusalem embassy, and the Gaza war. Netanyahu, who is facing a corruption trial and a political deadlock, has been reluctant to accept Biden’s calls for a ceasefire and a diplomatic solution to the conflict. He has also vowed to continue the settlement construction and annexation of parts of the West Bank, despite the opposition from the U.S. and the international community.
Biden’s order is a bold and unprecedented move that signals a shift in the U.S. policy toward Israel and the Palestinians. It also shows that Biden is willing to use his leverage and influence to pressure both sides to end the violence and resume the peace talks. Whether the order will have a lasting impact on the ground and on the prospects of a two-state solution remains to be seen, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.
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