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
March 5, 2024

Israeli soldiers accompanying Jewish settlers during their attack on the Palestinian town of Deir Sharaf in the northern West Bank, November 2023.

Photo by Nasser Ishtayeh / SOPA Images via Sipa USA

(This article also appeared in the Jewish Currents email newsletter; subscribe here!)

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.”

Alex Kane is a senior reporter for Jewish Currents.