Biden Has New Authority To Stop Israeli Settler Violence. His Choices May Shape Palestine's Future.

The president has sanctioned four Israelis in the West Bank — and a U.S. official told HuffPost more targets will be announced soon. But skepticism persists.

On Feb. 1, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Israeli settler Yinon Levi, locking him out of the international economic system and spurring Israeli banks to freeze his accounts.

The State Department accused Levi of leading fellow Israeli settlers in the West Bank — occupied Palestinian territory claimed by Israel — in attacking Palestinians, destroying their property and driving them from their villages. Levi was little-known internationally, but video and press reports appeared to show him engaging in brutality the U.S. had said it would punish. (Levi denied wrongdoing and said he was never involved in an attack.)

Now his case is drawing additional attention as potential proof a new executive order from President Joe Biden could help de-escalate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by undercutting Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which would be the heart of any future Palestinian state.

Levi is one of four Israelis sanctioned under the new order, which allows the U.S. to impose sanctions on individuals and entities linked to violence in the West Bank – reprimands which have a sweeping effect because the policy states that once they are imposed, any banks or other entities that do business with them could face U.S. sanctions themselves. It gives the government new powers to halt the flow of hundreds of millions in tax-exempt dollars from U.S. nonprofits to settlers seeking to displace Palestinians, and to put massive pressure on the Israeli government to alter its settlement policy.

The Biden administration will sanction more individuals under the order soon, finalizing its decision in the coming days, a U.S. official told HuffPost. The official said the sanctions will be similar to the first round and will be agreed upon following a meeting of the National Security Council’s deputies committee next week. (A State Department spokesperson declined to comment on the revelation.)

The additional step will follow another striking shift on settlers from the U.S. On Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called West Bank settlements illegal under international law. While that is indisputable, the Biden administration had previously abided by former President Donald Trump’s policy of treating the settlements as legal, which broke with pre-Trump U.S. practice.

The possible consequences of the initial round of sanctions demonstrate how the order and Biden’s seeming focus on challenging settlements could spur sweeping progress.

Most settlers receive some degree of support from the Israeli state: Levi built his illegal outpost in collaboration with a subsidiary of an Israeli government body called the Har Hebron Regional Council, which oversees settlers around the West Bank city of Hebron, The Times of Israel reported. The outpost already violated Israeli law. Now that Levi is under American sanctions, that council is at risk, and so are its partners stateside, like a Brooklyn-based nonprofit called The Hebron Fund, which sends money from American citizens to support settlers in Hebron.

“That’s why it’s a Death Star,” Hadar Susskind, president of Americans for Peace Now, a nonprofit supporting a two-state solution for Israel-Palestine, said of Biden’s executive order. “You have to aim it. You have to decide when you’re going to use it. But it has the potential to disintegrate the settlement enterprise.”

Peace Now, the Israeli anti-settlement movement that partners with Susskind’s group, on Feb. 13 wrote to U.S. ambassador to Israel Jack Lew, saying it was launching a center for compiling reports of settler violence that it would share with the U.S. and the Israeli public. The effort ― which has not previously been reported ― is being run in partnership with the Israeli human rights group Looking Occupation in the Eye. The Palestinian Authority, which controls some portions of the West Bank, also flags settler attacks for U.S. officials.

“I certainly hope that the U.S. will continue this active route against settler violence,” said Lior Amihai, Peace Now’s executive director. “There are many more violent settlers than the four sanctioned, and there are groups and leaders who should have to take responsibility for their contribution and enabling settler violence.”

The policy could also help Biden ameliorate the widespread perception that he has little regard for Palestinian lives, a product of his largely unchecked support for Israel’s deadly ongoing military offensive in the Gaza Strip, which has so far killed at least 29,000 Palestinians. A demonstrable shift could bolster Biden’s bid to end the war and promote future stability in Israel-Palestine; amid the fighting in Gaza, settlers backed by the Israeli state have unleashed their deadliest wave of violence against West Bank Palestinians since Israel took over the territory.

A Palestinian who got injured after the raids and attacks of Israeli forces and Jewish settlers is seen with bandage on his face in the village of Burqa in Nablus, West Bank, on Feb. 20. It was stated that 7 Palestinians were injured in raids and attacks in Nablus and Tulkarem cities of West Bank.
A Palestinian who got injured after the raids and attacks of Israeli forces and Jewish settlers is seen with bandage on his face in the village of Burqa in Nablus, West Bank, on Feb. 20. It was stated that 7 Palestinians were injured in raids and attacks in Nablus and Tulkarem cities of West Bank.
Nedal Eshtayah/Anadolu via Getty Images

While the Biden administration has so far only imposed sanctions on Levi and three other settlers, it could use its tool much more aggressively, advocates and officials say. Still, given the president’s overall sympathy for Israel as it retaliates after a bloody Oct. 7 attack by Gaza-based militants, and his general reluctance to appear tough on the U.S. ally, observers say their hope is tempered.

There’s a general consensus that the impact of the order will hinge on Washington’s willingness to aim beyond individuals and pursue major supporters of settlers, including in the United States. The Treasury Department and Internal Revenue Service could, for instance, see the order and sanctions deriving from it as an impetus to use existing American law to shut off financial system access for American groups backing sanctioned settlers, seize those groups’ assets or even shut them down altogether.

Targeting U.S. organizations would be “hugely impactful” yet “politically explosive,” said a U.S. official who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record.

“There is talk at working levels of doing this but there is an understanding that Joe Biden would never sign off on this over his dead body: He knows where his donor bread is buttered,” the official continued.

A State Department spokesperson told HuffPost they could not preview potential additional sanctions targets, but noted both Biden and Blinken have spoken of concerns about West Bank violence and the need for accountability.

“We have every intention to enforce the recently issued executive order on those who undermine peace, stability, and security in the West Bank,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. Earlier this month, State spokesperson Matt Miller told reporters: “We think it’s important that extremist settler violence…those involved in it be held accountable for their actions, whatever their citizenship.”

Some pro-Israel political donors and groups in the U.S., including some liberals, are deeply resistant to questioning Israeli government policies like settlements, and may even support settlers themselves. While U.S. presidents of both parties have criticized West Bank settlements for decades, they have rarely used U.S. power to make it harder for them to exist and grow.

Biden’s step is already “arguably the most punitive action ever taken by the U.S. against Israeli citizens,” said Udi Ofer, director of the Policy Advocacy Clinic at Princeton University and chair of the international advisory council for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. “It’s the most significant move the U.S. has ever taken against settler violence, and it puts the Israeli government on notice.”

Simultaneously, it could hold Biden to account: setting a standard for measuring how serious the president is about his stated goals for Israel-Palestine.

From Bad To Worse

Israelis began building settlements in the West Bank two months after their country captured the territory ― which was already home to millions of Palestinians, many of them refugees ― from Jordan during the Six-Day War of 1967.

Since then, the U.S. has generally criticized the policy as unhelpful for Israeli-Palestinian peace but done little to interfere with it, with only two notable exceptions. In 1991, then President George H.W. Bush withheld American loan guarantees for Israel until he was sure the money would not be used to fund settlements. And in 2019, former President Donald Trump decided the U.S. would no longer treat the settlements as illegal, though they clearly are under international law. Prior to Feb. 23, Biden maintained that policy, along with other precedent-shattering pro-Israel steps Trump took.

Meanwhile, the rightward evolution of Israeli politics has made the settlement enterprise increasingly significant ― for reasons ranging from a religious fixation on controlling ancient Jewish lands to a strategic resistance to allowing the establishment of a Palestinian state centered in the West Bank. Today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government is propped up by far-right parties led by two hardline settlers: Finance Minister Belazal Smotrich, a self-described “fascist homophobe,” and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, a disciple of the racist Israeli militant Meir Kahane. All three men have repeatedly ruled out the idea of Palestinian independence and spoken instead of annexing Palestinian territory.

Since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas and other Palestinian militants, Ben Gvir has been distributing arms to Israeli civilians, including settlers, and watchdogs have documented a historic surge in West Bank bloodshed. The violence has killed nearly 400 Palestinians in the West Bank, including 99 children, and 10 Israelis so far. Israeli forces posted in the region are tasked with protecting settlers, and often collaborate with them in attacks, advocacy groups say.

Israel's National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir (center) inspects M5 automatic assault rifles being handed out to volunteers of the new civilian guard unit during the unit's inauguration ceremony in the southern city of Ashkelon on Oct. 27, 2023.
Israel's National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir (center) inspects M5 automatic assault rifles being handed out to volunteers of the new civilian guard unit during the unit's inauguration ceremony in the southern city of Ashkelon on Oct. 27, 2023.
MENAHEM KAHANA via Getty Images

“It may appear as though settlers show up at Palestinian communities and start attacking them on their own initiative. In fact, these actions are part of Israel’s well-known, longstanding policy to make life so miserable for dozens of Palestinian communities in the West Bank that the residents eventually leave, seemingly of their own accord,” the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem argued in an October statement. “Israel then proceeds to take over the land and use it for its own purposes ― mainly building and expanding settlements. This policy has radically intensified under the current government, whose members fully support and even encourage the violent attacks.”

Settlers have received hundreds of millions of tax-exempt dollars from U.S.-based donors over the years.

From 2009 to 2013, the deeply controversial Central Fund of Israel and fellow nonprofits fueled the displacement of Palestinians in the West Bank by providing more than $220 million to settlements, settler groups, and legal defense funds for settlers from 2009 through 2013, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported. (The fund’s director has argued its donations do not serve political purposes.) Haaretz has also found that Christian Zionist groups in the U.S. donated between $50 and $65 million to settlement organizations from 2008 through 2017. Since Oct. 7, some American donors have ramped up their efforts, like a group of New York donors who raised money for “defensive” equipment for settlers in Beit El in the West Bank who were actively engaged in displacing Palestinians through intimidation and violence, according to New Lines Magazine.

What’s publicly known represents only the tip of the iceberg in terms of U.S. money flowing to settlers.

The IRS does not require nonprofits to itemize donations to foreign entities, making them incredibly difficult to track. Researchers and reporters have to comb through U.S. and Israeli tax records and other publicly or privately available sources to discover the recipients of these contributions, likely missing millions of dollars worth of funding.

Additionally, private donors can earmark money they put into investment vehicles run by huge funds like Fidelity or Vanguard or by Jewish federations ― which ostensibly refuse to fund groups in the occupied West Bank ― to make personal contributions to settler organizations.

Following Biden’s order, that sprawling web of ties to dollars supporting settlers is giving hope to opponents of Israel’s occupation and creeping annexation of the West Bank.

“If you’re a bazillion dollar institution like Vanguard, are you going to want to get caught up in international sanctions because some dude in Brooklyn wants to give $10,000 to help build a ‘defensive’ wall in an illegal settlement in the middle of the West Bank?” Susskind said.

The policy says sanctions could be imposed for a wide range of actions, from threatening violence and engaging in attacks to frightening civilians so they are forced to move or targeting property ― a range of actions that practically covers the whole settlement project. The order forbids “the making of any contribution or provision of funds, goods, or services by, to, or for the benefit of any [sanctioned] person.”

Anti-settler activists, like those at the rabbinic human rights group T’ruah, see the sanctions as a new way to accomplish their previous request for the IRS to investigate and revoke the tax-exempt status of multiple U.S. nonprofits funding settlers, as well as Israeli organizations that promote anti-Palestinian ideology.

“I would hope that they’re going to look into the organizations, particularly the Central Fund of Israel, which has been one of the main funders of these groups, and look at their nonpublic list of who they fund and ensure that they’re no longer sending money to groups that are involved in terror and violence,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs of T’ruah.

A Matter Of Political Will

Across the U.S. government, Israel-related matters are treated with a delicacy unlike any other global affairs question. Experts, including current and former U.S. officials, believe that sensitivity will extend to how far Biden’s order is applied.

“It’s obvious they’re treating the sanctions of Israelis very differently than they would be treating sanctioning of, let’s say, war criminals in the Central African Republic,” said Delaney Simon, an analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank. “It’s just a different ballgame and the administration is very clear about its ‘ironclad’ support for Israel.”

Because there are only so many individuals and entities the U.S. government has the capacity to investigate and punish, the effectiveness of sanctions in any scenario hinges on whether they have ramifications beyond the sanctioned individuals. Simon plans to track whether the settler sanctions have a deterrent “chilling” effect on other settlers, leading to less violence in the West Bank.

But there’s already a sense in the foreign policy community that Biden’s hesitance to target Israelis could render the order toothless.

“If they sanction Smotrich or Ben Gvir, that might have an impact on future settler behavior,” the U.S. official said. The administration has already said it does not plan to target those far-right ministers.

The administration appears committed to distinguishing between sanctionable offenses by individual settlers and Israel’s overall settlement project in the West Bank, argued Brian Finucane, a former State Department lawyer, calling that a “distinction that may not exist in practice.”

If its implementation is botched, the order could end up emboldening settlers, Simon noted.

It’s not inconceivable that declarations from Biden and other top officials that they are serious about ending settler violence will push U.S. officials to be creative and ambitious in applying the order. Political considerations could also make the administration more enthusiastic: Biden could apply sanctions strategically as a “wedge issue” to split Netanyahu’s governing coalition, Susskind argued, potentially opening the door to other Israeli leaders who would be more open to encouraging the creation of a viable Palestinian state centered in the West Bank.

Yet for strong enforcement to begin, a serious change in course from Biden would likely be needed, and there’s little sign yet that he is tangibly pulling back from his full-tilt backing of Israel following Oct. 7.

Calling the order “a very small step in the right direction,” former Defense Department attorney Sarah Harrison told HuffPost the policy “comes across as performative.”

“This effort should not distract us from the cosmic defect in U.S. policy, which is President Biden’s ideological stance of refusing to condition military assistance to Israel,” Harrison said.

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