Updated Feb 1, 2024 - World

Biden issues executive order targeting Israeli settlers who attack Palestinians

Israeli soldiers guard Jewish settlers after some launch an attack on the Palestinian town of Deir Sharaf following a shooting attack that killed an Israeli man in the area. Photo: Nasser Ishtayeh/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Israeli soldiers guard Israeli settlers after some launch an attack on the Palestinian town of Deir Sharaf on Nov. 2, 2023. Photo: Nasser Ishtayeh/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

President Biden on Thursday signed an executive order allowing the U.S. to impose new sanctions on Israeli settlers — and potentially Israeli politicians and government officials — involved in violent attacks against Palestinians.

Why it matters: The unprecedented executive order is the most significant step any U.S. administration has ever taken in response to violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinian civilians in the West Bank.

Zoom in: There have been nearly 500 Israeli settler attacks against Palestinians since Oct. 7, according to the UN humanitarian office (OCHA).

  • In those attacks, Israeli settlers have killed at least eight Palestinians, including a child, and injured more than 115 others, OCHA said on Wednesday.
  • The Israeli government claims it has taken robust action over the last two months to tackle the problem and that it led to a decrease in the number of violent attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank.

Driving the news: The Biden administration has raised its concerns about settler violence numerous times with different Israeli governments over the last three years.

  • After the settler violence reached record levels following the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack, Biden raised the issue publicly and privately with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Other senior U.S. officials have also brought up the issue with their Israeli counterparts in recent months.

Biden in November ordered the secretaries of state and treasury to prepare possible sanctions against Israeli individuals or entities involved in violent attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank.

  • Several weeks later, Secretary of State Tony Blinken imposed visa bans on several dozen Israeli settlers believed to be involved in attacks against Palestinians, preventing them from traveling to the U.S.

Details: The first round of sanctions under the new executive order includes four Israeli settlers who the U.S. said were directly involved in attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank and systematic acts that led to the forced displacement of Palestinian communities.

  • They include David Chai Chasdai, who the U.S. says initiated and led a riot in a Palestinian village, Einan Tanjil, who is accused of assaulting Palestinian famers, Shalom Zicherman, who the U.S. alleges assaulted Israeli activists in the West Bank, and Yinon Levi, who the State Department says has repeatedly attacked several communities in the West Bank.
  • None of those named or their representatives immediately commented on the sanctions.
  • The settlers' assets and bank accounts in the U.S. will be frozen and no one will be allowed to trade or transfer them money through the U.S. financial system.

The executive order also allows the administration to impose sanctions on additional individuals who directed or participated in acts or threats of violence against Palestinian civilians, intimidated Palestinian civilians causing them to leave their homes, destroyed or seized property of Palestinian civilians, or were involved in acts of terrorism against Palestinian civilians.

  • It allows the administration to sanction leaders or government officials directly or indirectly involved in violence against Palestinians.
  • The executive order makes clear that individuals who are "directing, enacting, implementing and enforcing or failing to enforce policies that threaten the peace, security and stability in the West Bank" could be sanctioned.

What they're saying: "Israel must do more to stop violence against civilians in the West Bank and hold accountable those responsible for it," Blinken said later Thursday.

  • "The United States will continue to take actions to advance the foreign policy objectives of the United States, including the viability of a two-state solution, and is committed to the safety, security, and dignity of Israelis and Palestinians alike," he added.

Behind the scenes: The White House, State Department and Department of Treasury have been quietly working on the executive order for weeks, according to two U.S. officials.

  • The administration had considered including ultranationalist Ministers Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich on the list of sanctioned individuals, but it ultimately decided to leave them off for now and focus on those who perpetrated attacks, the U.S. officials said.

The other side: The Israeli Prime Minister's Office said Biden's executive order is not needed.

  • "The vast majority of settlers are law-abiding citizens and many of them are fighting these days to protect Israel. Israel is taking action against people who break the law everywhere and therefore there is no place for unusual measures in this regard," it said.

Israeli Finance Minister Smotrich called what he described as a "settler violence campaign" an "antisemitic lie."

  • Smotrich added that he will continue to work to strengthen Israeli settlements. "If the price is U.S. sanctions against me – so be it," he said.

Of note: The Biden administration had imposed five rounds of sanctions against Hamas leaders and operatives over the last three months.

Between the lines: Thursday's order came ahead of Biden's visit to Michigan later in the day. The state is home to the biggest population of Arab Americans.

Go deeper: State Department reviewing options for possible recognition of Palestinian state

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details.

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