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Joe Biden has approved financial sanctions on Israelis responsible for “extremist settler violence” against Palestinian civilians in the West Bank, amid rising tensions between the US and Israel over a two-state solution in the region.
The president signed an executive order on Thursday authorising the sanctions, which would cut off designated individuals from the American financial system, including barring them from receiving financial assistance from the US.
The sanctions amount to a broader US crackdown on the conduct of settlers in the West Bank compared with visa restrictions imposed on certain individuals late last year. The sanctions also mark a rare move by the US to target the citizens of an allied country.
Biden’s move comes amid fears in Washington that violence by settlers in the West Bank is exacerbating tensions caused by the war in Gaza, undermining the prospects for a settlement of the conflict.
The president took the action ahead of a trip to Michigan on Thursday, where the Arab-American community has warned the White House that many residents would oppose his re-election because of his support for Israel’s war in Gaza.
Washington is also frustrated that Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israeli government has rejected its vision for a diplomatic resolution that would involve the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
A senior Biden administration official said that Biden had expressed his concern about settler violence in the West Bank “in almost every diplomatic conversation” he had with Israeli leaders about the crisis.
“These actions pose a grave threat to peace, security and stability in the West Bank, Israel and the Middle East region, and they also obstruct the realisation of ultimately an independent Palestinian state existing side-by-side the state of Israel,” the official added.
The US state department said four “Israeli nationals/individuals connected to violence in the West Bank” already had sanctions against them on Thursday.
But beyond the sanctions imposed this week, Biden’s move amounts to a warning to any settlers in the West Bank not to engage in violence against Palestinian civilians or seize more land. Officials said violence and threats of violence, the destruction and seizing of property, as well as the displacement and intimidation of civilians could all face US sanctions.
Financial sanctions are one of the US’s most potent economic weapons — and have been widely deployed by the Biden administration to target Russian oligarchs and businesses since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
Since war broke out in Gaza on October 7 between Israel and Hamas, the US has used financial sanctions to crack down on funding for Hamas, as well as Iran-backed proxy groups in the region including Hizbollah and the Houthis.
The new sanctions would not only bar West Bank settlers from travelling to the US, but would also block them from receiving any funding from American citizens or permanent residents.
Bezalel Smotrich, a far-right settler who serves as Israel’s finance minister, lashed out at the US move.
“The ‘settler violence’ campaign is an antisemitic lie spread by Israel’s enemies with the aim of discrediting the pioneering settlers and the settlement enterprise and harming them, thereby discrediting the entire state of Israel,” he wrote on X.
“It’s a shame that the Biden administration is co-operating with this in the days when the settlers are paying a dear price in blood of the best of their sons in the war in Gaza.”
The effectiveness of the financial sanctions will depend on how aggressively they are enforced by US authorities and the degree to which they can be circumvented.
Israeli bankers said the country’s banks would comply with any orders from the US, but that at first glance it seemed like the impact of the sanctions would be relatively limited, and that the measures were more political than economic.
Speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington before his visit to Michigan, Biden said he was “actively working for peace, security [and] dignity for the Israeli people and the Palestinian people”.
“I’m engaged in this day and night, working with many of you in this room, to find the means to bring our hostages home, to ease the humanitarian crisis, and to bring peace to Gaza and Israel,” said Biden.
Additional reporting by Neri Zilber