Biden administration imposes first sanctions on West Bank settlements

The Biden administration announced sanctions on two West Bank settlements Thursday, marking the first time economic restrictions have ever been placed on entire Israeli outposts in the Palestinian territory.

The sanctions were issued because of acts of violence against civilians, the State Department said in a statement announcing the measures. “There is no justification for extremist violence against civilians, whatever their national origin, ethnicity, race, or religion,” the State Department said.

The two sanctioned settlements were listed as Moshes Farm, also known as Tirza Valley Farm Outpost, and Zvis Farm.

Three Israeli citizens were also individually placed on the Office of Foreign Assets Control’s list of sanctioned entities: Zvi Bar Yosef, 31; Neriya Ben Pazi, 30; and Moshe Sharvit, 29.

All three men have been linked to violence against Palestinians in media reports. The State Department said Bar Yosef has engaged in “repeated violence and attempts to engage in violence against Palestinians in the West Bank,” while both Ben Pazi and Sharvit have used threats and violence to expel Palestinians from their land.

The sanctions block access to U.S. property or assets and prohibit financial institutions from working with those targeted. After the United States announced sanctions on four settlers in a different action in February, Israeli banks said they would comply with the sanctions, and the settlers told Israeli media that their accounts had been frozen, despite complaints from far-right ministers.

The move comes amid rising tensions between the Biden administration and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over not just the continued violence perpetrated by Israeli settlers in the West Bank, but also over the escalating humanitarian crisis in Gaza, where at least 31,341 people have died, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

President Biden warned last weekend that an Israeli ground offensive in Rafah, a southern Gazan city now overflowing with civilians who have fled other parts of the strip, would be a “red line” for the United States, without specifying how he would respond.

On Thursday, Israel Defense Forces spokesman Daniel Hagari said that the Israeli military intended to direct a “significant” portion of Rafah’s population of 1.4 million toward “humanitarian islands” in central Gaza, adding that Israel intended to “flood” Gaza with aid.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the Biden administration had not seen Israel’s plans.

“Our position has not changed,” Kirby told reporters. “We do not want to see large-scale operations in Rafah unless there is a credible, legitimate, executable plan to provide for the safety and security of the civilians that are there.”

Thursday’s sanctions immediately drew criticism from some Israeli politicians.

“It is not possible for other countries to impose sanctions on Israeli citizens and to damage their property rights without any basis,” Tzvi Sukkot, a Knesset member from the far-right Religious Zionist Party, told Israeli radio station 103FM on Thursday shortly after the announcement.

Peace Now, an Israeli advocacy group that tracks and opposes West Bank settlements, meanwhile, welcomed the new sanctions, saying it was time for the settlements to pay for “their violence and systematic criminality” in a post on the social platform X.

Violence has flared in the West Bank since the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel, which sparked the ongoing war in Gaza. Yesh Din, a human rights group, called 2023 the “most violent year in settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank in both the number of incidents and their severity,” with a particular spike in violence in the two months after the attacks on Israel.

As many as 700,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank, spread across 279 settlements, according to estimates from the United Nations. On March 6, Israel’s settlements minister wrote on the social media platform X that plans to construct 3,500 additional settlement homes were progressing, sparking condemnation from United Nations officials and some world leaders.

Thursday’s sanctions were issued under an executive order signed by Biden in February that allowed the United States to target people who undermined peace, security and stability in the West Bank and hurt U.S. foreign policy objectives, including a two-state solution. Four individual Israeli settlers were placed on the sanctions list at that time.

The executive order was just one sign of administration pressure on Israeli settlements. Later in February, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a reversal of the previous administration’s position on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, calling them “inconsistent with international law” and stating that they weaken Israeli security.

Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian envoy to the United Nations, said at a meeting this week that sanctions on individual settlers were not enough and that all settlers and settlements needed to be targeted. “The entire enterprise of settlements and settlers should be sanctioned — don’t allow a single of one of them to get a visa to visit any of your countries,” Mansour told the United Nations.

Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.

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