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Global pressure is mounting on Israel's violent settlers

Global pressure is mounting on Israel's violent settlers
7 min read
20 February, 2024
In-depth: Settler violence has surged since the Gaza war, but a recent raft of international sanctions has yet to target Israeli officials or state policy.

The French foreign ministry last week banned 28 Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank from entering the country after accusing them of attacking Palestinians, becoming the first European Union (EU) member state to take such punitive action.

The move came a day after the foreign ministers of France, Poland, and Germany announced in a joint statement that Israeli settlers involved in West Bank attacks would be sanctioned, a sign that international pressure is continuing to grow.

Earlier in February, in a rare punitive move against Israel, US President Joe Biden approved sanctions on four Israeli settlers after approving visa bans several months prior.

The presidential decree could see sanctions on settler leaders, politicians, and state officials who incite violence, while also opening the door to limiting US groups from funding the more extreme settlements, many of which are financed through private donations.

Shortly after the US move this month, the UK followed suit, issuing asset freezes and travel and visa bans on four settlers. The UK Foreign Office said Israel’s “failure to act” had led to “an environment of near total impunity for settler extremists”.

Canada also announced sanctions in February on Israeli settlers who encourage violence in the West Bank, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made an announcement in late January.

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A stronger EU stance?

EU efforts for collective action in imposing a settler blacklist have been thwarted so far due to objections from Israel’s staunch EU allies, Hungary and the Czech Republic, who publicly declared earlier this month that they do not wish to discuss the matter at this stage.

This week, however, Spain said it would impose sanctions on violent Israeli settlers unilaterally if its EU partners failed to reach an agreement on the issue.

Israel’s planned invasion of Rafah, with all the devastation it would entail, could provide further motivation for unified EU-level action against Israel.

“These countries’ moves are also the result of their inability to affect what happens in Gaza,” Eyal Lurie-Pardes, a visiting fellow in the program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute (MEI), told The New Arab.

He also stressed that steps addressing the longstanding issue of settler violence in the West Bank could, and should, have been taken long ago.

Even before the Gaza war 2023 was the most violent year on record for settler attacks against Palestinians. [Getty]

Although there was criticism from the European bloc of Israel’s unprecedented military attacks on Gaza in the wake of Hamas’ 7 October attack, sanctions did not follow.

It was only two months later that the surge in settler violence in the West Bank was tackled. The US State Department imposed travel bans in early December, targeting individuals implicated in “undermining peace, security, or stability in the West Bank".

Days later, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell proposed sanctions against individual settlers responsible for violence against Palestinians. But these measures require unanimity within the EU, which still has not found agreement.

The recent round of disciplinary actions initiated by some EU countries appears to show an attempt to take a strong European stance, as the bloc has struggled to find a unified voice in calling for an end to Israel’s military operations in Gaza due to internal divisions, and European countries have failed to do much about violence in the West Bank.

Widening the sanctions

Human rights groups have increasingly urged Biden to include political leaders in his decree penalising perpetrators of settler violence, such as government ministers and members of the Israeli parliament.

Further to these growing calls, a Wall Street Journal report published last week revealed that the White House was preparing a set of sanctions that would target two far-right influential members of Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet, Israel's Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.

These actions were being considered amid escalating tensions between Washington and Tel Aviv as the US has been trying to dissuade Israel from launching a ground invasion of Rafah, the last refuge for Palestinians fleeing incessant, indiscriminate bombing across the Gaza Strip.

Eyal Lurie-Pardes from the Middle East Institute noted that the executive order has “great potential” to put the Israeli settler movement under stronger international scrutiny while showing how settler violence in the West Bank is closely connected with any type of entity that funds, supports, and enables the settlement enterprise.

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“It’s an embodiment of why settler violence and state violence are so intertwined with each other,” he argued, adding that the recent blacklisting of settlers, though not a game-changer, should not be underestimated.

The settler sanctions order comes against a backdrop of strong disapproval for Biden’s unwavering support for Israel’s war on Gaza from Arab American and young democrat voters in the face of a staggering Palestinian death toll that is nearing 30,000 people, including over 12,000 children.

The president’s measure is likely part of a domestic political move to win back voters from the constituencies that may be key to his re-election in the November presidential vote.

Lurie-Pardes claimed that given his continuous backing of Netanyahu's military campaign in Gaza, Biden needed to give “some sort of political” gift to an important bloc of his coalition to prove that he does not blindly support everything that Israel does.

There are over 700,000 Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. [Getty]

The rare efforts by Western countries to sanction Israelis committing, aiding, and abetting violations of Palestinian rights send a warning message to the Israeli government amid concerns that the violence could set off a wider conflict in the West Bank.

Settler violence has surged since Israel unleashed its offensive on the Gaza Strip. According to UN figures, daily attacks by settlers, who often act under the protection of the Israeli army or police, have more than doubled during the over four-month-long war, with over 550 attacks carried out since October.

Over 700,000 Israeli settlers are estimated to live in the occupied Palestinian territories, and around 500,000 of them reside inside the West Bank in settlements that are considered illegal under international law. Even before 7 October 2023 was the most violent year on record for settler attacks against Palestinians.

Settlements as official Israeli policy

While sanctioning batches of extremist settlers is a positive step, it is the existence of settlements themselves that is the core of the problem. The whole Israeli settlement policy in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, including the transfer of Israelis into occupied Palestinian territory and building settlements, is a war crime.

“Israeli settlements are a state policy. To sanction individuals rather than the state responsible for this violence is a farce”, Marwa Fatafta, a Palestinian policy analyst at Al-Shabaka, wrote on X.

“Sanctions should also be imposed on the settlement policy itself,” Dror Sadot, a spokeswoman for the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, told TNA. She said that the initiative by the US and European countries is a way “to show” they are paying attention to Israeli policies in the West Bank, however, the outcome is “very limited” in terms of seeking accountability for Israel-sponsored violence.

“Israel finances those settlements, allows settlers to live there illegally and enjoy impunity, and the army guards them,” Sadot said.

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In its report published last month, Israeli settlement watchdog Peace Now indicated an “unprecedented surge” in settlement activities - besides ongoing settler violence against Palestinians - in the three months following the start of the war in Gaza, including the building of outposts, roads, fences, and roadblocks to impede or restrict Palestinian movement between their towns and villages.

Sanctions on a limited number of violent settlers are therefore viewed as mainly cosmetic and do not signal a serious effort to curb settler violence. Only if widely implemented would they have a major impact.

“They’re not going to have a significant effect or pressure Netanyahu,” Paul Scham, a professor of Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, told TNA. “Biden is simply not ready to come out in direct opposition to Israel’s current government.” He also expressed doubts over the likelihood that the Biden administration may go further with its sanctions order, except for potentially increasing the number of settlers targeted.

The academic observed that with renewed US support for a two-state solution, there has been “more discussion” with the United States and several Arab partners, with the reported drafting of a peace plan that includes a timeline for a Palestinian state, which Netanyahu’s cabinet has vehemently rejected.

Biden’s symbolic push for Palestinian statehood sends Tel Aviv a message that “the hope of controlling the West Bank and Gaza for the foreseeable future is not going to be tolerated” though, Scham admitted, the US administration has not given any hint of any willingness to commit to it.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec