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Understanding Biden’s Settler Sanctions Strategy

Welcome to the Tuesday News Bulletin! Every week, we publish original reporting on Israel/Palestine by our staff and contributors, which goes directly to our newsletter subscribers. The Tuesday News Bulletin also serves as a forum for aggregating stories Jewish Currents staffers are tracking, with plenty of links to other publications so you can keep up with everything happening on our beats.

Understanding Biden’s Settler Sanctions Strategy
The administration’s sanctions on Israeli settlers are an attempt to mollify its disillusioned base without confronting the Israeli government.
Alex Kane

On February 1st, United States President Joe Biden issued an executive order imposing financial sanctions on Israeli settlers who have participated in “violence, forced displacement of people and villages, and property destruction” in the West Bank. On the same day, the State Department named four specific Israeli settlers responsible for “escalating violence against civilians” and announced that it would block them from accessing property in the US and receiving funds from Americans.

The February sanctions were the most consequential in a series of recent Biden administration actions against Israeli settlers illegally living in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Since October 7th, the administration has held up the sale of American rifles that could wind up in settlers’ hands and banned certain violent settlers from securing visas to the US. The administration also told The Times of Israel that it plans to levy a second round of sanctions on extremist settlers in the coming weeks. Khaled Elgindy, director of the Middle East Institute’s program on Palestine and Israeli-Palestinian affairs, told Jewish Currents that these decisions represent a change in posture for Biden, who—despite long having opposed Israeli settlements—has never acted against them since he “believes as a matter of dogma that no public pressure on Israel is acceptable.”

However, Elgindy and other regional analysts say that these actions, while welcome, are unlikely to deter violence against Palestinians because they only target individual violent settlers while ignoring the state infrastructure that backs them. In his executive order, the president pointed out that “extremist settler violence . . . has reached intolerable levels.” But while settler violence has indeed skyrocketed, it is still the Israeli army that has been responsible for the majority of Palestinian deaths in the West Bank since October 7th, with soldiers killing at least 348 Palestinians to settlers’ eight. Israeli soldiers have also accompanied settlers—and at times even joined them—in violently assaulting Palestinians in the West Bank, while far-right Israeli ministers have deflected criticism of settlers by denying their well-documented violence altogether. As Ghassan Najjar, director of a land and farming cooperative in the West Bank village of Burin, told Jewish Currents in October: “The soldiers work with the settlers; the soldiers are settlers.”

The sole focus on individual settlers also fails to grapple with the role of the Israeli state in supporting settlements as a whole. Israeli authorities approve settlement construction, Israeli banks provide financing that makes that construction possible, and the Israeli army is not only tasked with protecting those settlements, but also with seizing land on which to build more of them. “It’s state policy in Israel to advance the settlement enterprise,” said Zaha Hassan, a human rights lawyer and fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “If you really want to address that, then you’re going to have to direct policy at Israeli authorities rather than at the individuals who are only instruments of state policy to settle the land for Israelis.”

Hassan said that if the US were serious about curbing settlements, it could make moves focused on “sanctioning the entire settlement enterprise, as opposed to individual settlers”—an approach that would “deny West Bank settlements acceptance and international legitimacy, something extremely important for Israel.” Such actions could include banning the import of settlement-made products into the US and stripping US nonprofits that fund Israeli settlements of their current tax-exempt status. In fact, last year human rights experts and former policymakers participated in a workshop convened by the Carnegie Endowment and Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) on how to address settler violence, and in December, Carnegie and DAWN sent the Biden administration a list of nine recommendations on how to address settler violence. The list included proposals to reclaim US-origin weapons from unauthorized users, restrict visas for individuals and entities involved in violence, and, most notably, to designate settlement regional councils—settler governance bodies that provide basic services to settlers—as foreign terrorist organizations if they were found to be involved in attacks on Palestinian communities in the West Bank. Such a designation would make it a crime for Americans to fund the councils in question; it would also cause the councils’ US assets to be seized and their representatives to be barred from traveling to the US.

Biden’s new sanctions regime falls significantly short of such recommendations, and while, according to DAWN researcher Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man, it could still conceivably be expanded to include Israeli military and government figures involved in attacks on Palestinians, this seems unlikely. Indeed, though the administration considered imposing sanctions on Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, two far-right ministers in the Israeli government who are part of the extremist settler movement, it ultimately decided against it, according to a report in Axios. Elgindy said he thinks it’s unlikely the administration will sanction enough individual settlers to “actually create a deterrent,” and is doubtful that future sanctions will include ministers or army officials. “Doing so would invite pushback from both the pro-Israel community and congressional Republicans in an election year,” said Elgindy. “It would be out of character for Biden to do anything that involves paying a price in the service of Palestinians or even of a two-state solution.”

Rather than a comprehensive attempt to check Israeli settler violence, then, Biden’s new sanctions are better understood as an effort to quell rising domestic discontent over US support for Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza, according to Yousef Munayyer, the head of the Palestine/Israel Program at the Arab Center Washington DC. Since October 7th, the administration has sent Israel tens of thousands of bombs, tank shells, and other munitions. To date, Israel has killed at least 30,600 Palestinians in Gaza, the vast majority of them civilians. The moves have been intensely unpopular with Biden’s base, with a majority of likely voters—including about three-quarters of Democrats—supporting a ceasefire in Gaza, and at least half of all Democrats wanting the US to stop arming Israel. But despite intense public pressure to change course, Biden and his advisors have, according to Munayyer, continued to “see military aid as fundamentally tied to their commitment to Israel’s security and existence, which is not something that they’re willing to reevaluate.”

As the 2024 election looms, Biden’s team is now “looking for things that they can point to in order to say, ‘We’re doing something to try to help the Palestinians; we’re doing something to try to hold the Israelis accountable,’” Munayyer told Jewish Currents. In this context, Elgindy noted, “settlers are easy targets.” Given broad consensus among Democratic voters that settlements play a key role in eroding the possibility of a two-state solution, “the constituencies this administration cares about can agree that settlements and settler terrorism are bad,” Elgindy said. As a result, he added, the US government has decided that it will “hold up rifles, but not the 2,000-pound bombs that kill hundreds of people at a time.” Lara Friedman, the president of the Foundation of the Middle East Peace, agreed that the sanctions should be seen as a political maneuver—and one, she said, that comes up short. “By going after settlers the way they are, not only are they trying to deflect focus away from their lack of interest in protecting Palestinian lives in Gaza, they’ve picked a strategy that lets them not challenge the Israeli government in any way,” Friedman said.

An early referendum on this strategy came last Tuesday, when 13% of voters in the Michigan Democratic primary voted “uncommitted” to protest Biden’s support for Israel’s war on Gaza. “In some predominantly Arab American precincts in Dearborn, around three in four Democrats cast a protest vote for uncommitted,” wrote New York Times political analyst Nate Cohn. That number “is an eye-popping figure” and “a powerful indication that the war in Gaza poses serious political risks to President Biden.” Sanctions against individual settlers have done little to placate such voters. “Biden is taking policy actions that, quite frankly, he should have done on day one of his administration. It feels like he’s just getting around to it now because we’re exercising our right to vote and registering our discontent,” said Abbas Alawieh, a former staffer for Reps. Cori Bush and Rashida Tlaib and a spokesman for Listen to Michigan, the group that organized the movement to vote “uncommitted.” Alawieh added: “Voters I’ve talked to welcome these decisions [on settlements], but it’s certainly not the kind of bold action that we need to see to believe that President Biden is in tune with the deep pain inflicted by the ongoing trauma of a genocide unfolding in real time.”

Here’s what else we’re tracking:
  • On Thursday, Israeli troops opened fire on starving Palestinians trying to get food from the first major aid convoy to enter Gaza City since late January. The attack, which has been referred to as the “flour massacre,” killed at least 100 Palestinians and wounded over 700 others. Three eyewitnesses told The New York Times that they saw “Israeli forces firing directly at people as they tried to reach the convoy,” with one witness saying that some people were also hit by aid trucks. The acting director of the Al-Awda Hospital in northern Gaza said that 80% of the injured Palestinians who came to his facility had gunshot wounds. But despite evidence to the contrary, Israel’s military denied committing the massacre, claiming it only shot a few Palestinians who endangered soldiers and that most people died because of a stampede. In response to the attack, a group of UN officials said that Israel “is targeting civilians seeking humanitarian aid and humanitarian convoys” as part of its longer “campaign of starvation” against the Palestinians in Gaza. Israel has blocked aid into the enclave since October, leading to widespread hunger; a quarter of the entire population in Gaza is now starving, according to the UN. At least 10 children have died in northern Gaza due to starvation.
  • A total of over 100,000 Palestinians are dead, injured, or missing—likely buried under rubble—after nearly five months of Israel’s war on Gaza, which the International Court of Justice has deemed a plausible genocide. Over 80% of the enclave’s population is displaced, and over half of Gaza’s buildings have been destroyed or damaged. Israel has continued to bombard homes and shelters throughout the territory. On Saturday, an Israeli airstrike targeted the Abu Anza family home in Rafah—the southern Gaza city Israel declared to be a safe zone in October, which it is now threatening to invade with ground troops—and killed 14 people, including six children, among them two five-month-old twins. Three days later, an Israeli airstrike in Khan Younis killed at least 17 people.
  • Indirect Israel–Hamas negotiations for a temporary ceasefire have hit a stalemate ahead of the unofficial March 10th Ramadan deadline for the agreement. If agreed to, a deal would include the release of Israeli hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners and a 40-day ceasefire that would enable the entry of aid to the besieged Gaza Strip. But on March 3rd, Israel declined to send a delegation to the Cairo negotiations after Hamas refused to provide a list of which hostages are still alive, saying that it was “practically impossible” to do so due to ongoing Israeli bombardment.
  • While Israel and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah have exchanged near-daily fire across the border since October—killing more than 200 Hezbollah fighters and dozens of Lebanese civilians, as well as 10 Israeli soldiers and six Israeli civilians—cross-border strikes have accelerated in the past week. Over the weekend, Israeli drone attacks in southern Lebanon killed seven Hezbollah members, and a responding anti-tank missile from Hezbollah killed a foreign worker and injured seven others. On Monday, the US Special Envoy Amos Hochstein visited Beirut to decrease the prospects of all-out war, but on Tuesday, after meeting with the envoy, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant nevertheless said that a military escalation was increasingly likely: “Hezbollah’s aggression is bringing us closer to a critical point.”
  • Drawing on witness testimonies from hostages released by Hamas, Pramila Patten—the United Nations’ special envoy for sexual violence in conflict—said that there is “clear and convincing information” that Israeli women being held captive in the Gaza Strip have faced sexual abuse, including rape. Patten said that her commission also found that there were “reasonable grounds” to believe that instances of rape and gang rape took place in and around the Nova music festival site, including in the nearby kibbutz of Re’im, during Hamas’s October 7th attack on Israel. But the report added that two allegations of sexual violence in Kibbutz Be’eri were “unfounded,” and that it could not verify other allegations from Kfar Aza and the Nahal Oz military base. Patten acknowledged that in writing the report, her team did not manage to meet with any survivors of sexual violence, who she said were “still experiencing an overwhelming level of trauma”; instead, the report’s conclusions were based on eyewitness testimonies and video and photo evidence.
  • The New York Times has come under fire for journalistic malpractice in its December article on Hamas’s alleged perpetration of sexual violence during its October 7th attack on Israel. A report published by The Intercept last week revealed that Anat Schwartz, one of the co-authors of the Times piece, was unable to find a single confirmation of sexual assaults from hospitals, rape crisis centers, trauma facilities, and sexual assault hotlines, and that she relied on unnamed Israeli sources and a discredited parademedic to bolster the article’s claim that Hamas carried out a systematic campaign of mass sexual violence. In a follow-up story published yesterday, The Intercept reported that the spokesperson for Kibbutz Be’eri denied that two of the three women singled out as victims by the Times were in fact victims of sexual assault. Further, although veteran international correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman was a co-author on the Times piece, newsroom sources told The Intercept that Schwartz—who had no prior journalistic experience—did the vast majority of the reporting, along with her partner’s nephew Adam Sella. Prior to taking on the assignment, Schwartz had liked a tweet that vowed to “turn the [Gaza] Strip into a slaughterhouse” and referred to the inhabitants as “human animals.” In statements to The Intercept, the Times said that it “stand[s] by the story” and that Schwartz’s work “was part of a rigorous reporting and editing process,” but that her “‘likes’ of offensive and opinionated social media posts, predating her work with us, are unacceptable.”