US President Joe Biden’s executive order allowing financial and travel sanctions on Israelis involved in settler violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank is a rare and positive step to address Israeli persecution of Palestinians.
The Biden administration’s rhetoric reveals growing frustration with the increasingly hard line of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right government. The sanctions, coming on top of similar travel bans issued in December and imposed as Biden was about to visit the electoral swing-state Michigan, which has a large Arab American population, add some bite to the administration’s words.
However, the West Bank violence, devastating as it is to its immediate victims, is a sideshow when compared with the extraordinary violence being unleashed against the people of Gaza. And even in the West Bank, the focus of the sanctions is limited. They can be understood as a shot across the bow — a warning that the Biden administration is willing to act — but their modest character and evasion of the Gaza debacle leave considerable room for more decisive action.
Settler violence in the West Bank, a longstanding problem, has mushroomed since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks. The UN humanitarian office counted 494 attacks through Jan. 31. One thousand Palestinians from at least 15 communities have been forced to flee their homes.
Responding to the sanctions, Netanyahu’s office said that Israel “acts against lawbreakers everywhere, so there is no need for exceptional steps in this matter”. In fact, the attacks flourish because Israeli authorities rarely prosecute the offenders.
Between 2005 and 2023, according to the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din, Israeli authorities closed 93.7 percent of investigations of Israelis accused of harming Palestinians in the West Bank without filing charges, and only 3 percent yielded a criminal conviction. As the Israeli rights group B’Tselem has documented, Israeli soldiers often look on passively as settlers attack Palestinian civilians and sometimes seem to abet the violence.
The settlements themselves are illegal — a war crime in violation of article 49 of the fourth Geneva convention of 1949, which prohibits an occupying power from transferring its population to occupied territory. Some settlers use violence to expand the government-authorized settlements, or create new unrecognized outposts, by driving Palestinians off their land.
Biden is correct to recognize the severity of the problem. Between the settlements, the outposts and the bypass roads, Palestinian land on the West Bank is already carved up into 165 separate enclaves, according to B’Tselem, undermining the prospect of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state. The settler violence threatens to make things even worse, undermining “the viability of a two-state solution,” as Biden’s executive order puts it.
Biden’s willingness to impose sanctions is significant because of its rarity. One must pull out the history books to come up with anything remotely comparable — perhaps then-US president Barack Obama’s 2016 UN Security Council abstention, allowing adoption of a resolution on the illegality of the settlements, or former US president George H.W. Bush’s brief withholding of US$10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel in 1991 to secure a (temporary) halt to Israeli settlement construction.
However, Biden’s new sanctions are also limited. His administration imposed them on four settlers, but, despite the effective green light that the settlers are exploiting, Biden did not sanction any Israeli officials. According to Axios, the administration considered but decided against including Netanyahu’s two most outspoken far-right ministers, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich. In a classic example of cheapening the important fight against antisemitism by using it to deflect challenges to Israeli government abuse, Smotrich responded to the Biden order by saying: “The ‘settler violence’ campaign is an antisemitic lie.”
Biden did not address the Israeli commanders who are closing their eyes to the settler violence if not facilitating it. He did not address the illegality of the settlements. He continues to refuse to recognize the apartheid that the Israeli government has imposed on millions of Palestinians in the occupied territory, as every serious human rights group to address the issue has found.
And grim as the situation is in the West Bank, it pales in comparison with the Israeli army’s bombing and besieging of Palestinian civilians in Gaza. Biden has been outspoken in calling on Netanyahu to reduce the harm to civilians in Gaza and to permit greater access to humanitarian aid, but so far the evidence suggests that Netanyahu is brushing off those pleas as mere words. As in the case of the settler violence, they must be bolstered by action.
Biden could have imposed sanctions on the generals who are dropping hugely destructive 2,000-pound bombs on Palestinian neighborhoods or who are mounting bureaucratic obstacles to the delivery of humanitarian aid as civilians face famine — both war crimes. He could have conditioned or suspended the US government’s US$3.8 billion in annual military aid to Israel and its delivery of arms until the killing and starving of civilians stop.
He could have vowed not to veto a mooted security council resolution pressing Israel to comply with the international court of justice’s provisional measures to avoid contributing to plausible genocide. He could have explicitly recognized that the US government’s welcoming of international criminal court jurisdiction over Russian war crimes in Ukraine (Ukraine has conferred jurisdiction even though Russia has not joined the court) applies equally to Israeli war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza (Palestine has conferred jurisdiction even though Israel has not joined the court).
In short, we should welcome Biden’s action on West Bank settler violence. Something is better than nothing, but we should not praise it for more than it is, and we should not take our eye off the main threats today to Palestinian civilian life — in Gaza.
Kenneth Roth, former executive director of Human Rights Watch (1993-2022), is a visiting professor at Princeton’s school of public and international affairs.
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