Joe Biden issues executive order against Israeli settlers in West Bank

A Palestinian man inspects the damage to his home and keeps an eye out for Israeli settlers, in Shaeb al-Botum, occupied West Bank, on 15 November 2023. Photograph: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
Financial sanctions and visa bans imposed on four individuals as US frustration with Israel grows.

Joe Biden has issued an executive order targeting Israeli settlers in the West Bank who have been attacking Palestinians, amid fast-growing frustration in Washington at Israel’s trajectory in the midst of its war in Gaza.

The order initially imposes financial sanctions and visa bans against four individuals, and US officials said they were evaluating whether to punish others involved in attacks that have intensified during the Israel-Hamas war.

According to at least one report before the executive order, options included the potential to sanction officials.

Palestinian authorities say some Palestinians have been killed, and rights groups say settlers have torched cars and attacked several small Bedouin communities, forcing evacuations.

In the order, Biden said that extremist settler violence in the West Bank had “reached intolerable levels and constitutes a serious threat to the peace, security and stability of the West Bank and Gaza, Israel, and the broader Middle East region”.

He said: “These actions undermine the foreign policy objectives of the United States, including the viability of a two-state solution and ensuring Israelis and Palestinians can attain equal measures of security, prosperity, and freedom.

“They also undermine the security of Israel and have the potential to lead to broader regional destabilisation across the Middle East, threatening United States personnel and interests.”

Biden has been facing growing criticism for his administration’s strong support of Israel as casualties mount in the conflict, which began when Hamas, the militant group that rules Gaza, attacked Israel on 7 October.

The order is a rare step against the US’s closest ally in the Middle East as Biden has pressed Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to show greater restraint in its military operations aimed at rooting out Hamas.

Biden and other senior US officials have warned repeatedly that Israel must act to stop violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank, which Palestinian authorities and activists say has intensified since the Gaza war started.

The Biden administration had also considered moves targeting two far-right Israeli ministers, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, according to a report on the Axios website.

Last month a US visa ban was announced for any Israeli settlers implicated in attacks on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

The new order will give the Treasury department the authority to impose financial sanctions on settlers engaged in violence, but is not meant to target US citizens. A substantial number of the settlers in the West Bank hold US citizenship and they would be prohibited under US law from transacting with the sanctioned individuals.

Israel is facing growing international discontent over its repeated refusal to contemplate the establishment of a viable Palestinian state, amid growing warnings that countries including the US and the UK may be considering unilateral recognition of statehood.

After comments by the UK foreign secretary, David Cameron, last week that the UK might consider recognition on the day after the war in Gaza ends, US officials have indicated that the state department has been ordered to examine options for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with security guarantees for Israel.

The state department’s spokesperson, Matthew Miller, declined to give details on its internal work on the issue but told a news briefing that the effort had been an objective of Biden’s administration.

The US and the UK, among other states, have long held up the goal of a Palestinian state as part of a negotiated peace process but recent moves in the midst of the Gaza war have highlighted the increasing sense of international frustration with Netanyahu, who has long worked to prevent a Palestinian state.

The Israeli prime minister has in recent weeks spoken of an extended period of military security control by Israel in Gaza while rejecting a role for any revitalised Palestinian Authority.

Washington and London appear to have indicated a change in emphasis in the sequencing of a recognition of a Palestinian state, which in the past was seen as the final step.

Miller told a state department briefing that the US was “actively pursuing the establishment as an independent Palestinian state, with real security guarantees for Israel, because we do believe that is the best way to bring about lasting peace and security for Israel, for Palestinians and for the region”.

He added: “There are any number of ways that you could go about accomplishing that. There are a number of sequencing of events that you can carry out to accomplish that objective. And we look at a wide range of options and we discuss those with partners in the region as well as other partners inside the United States government.”

Lord Cameron said the issue of recognising a Palestinian state would be part of a diplomatic process in which the Palestinian people would have to be shown “irreversible progress”.

Axios reported on Wednesday that the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, had asked the state department to conduct a review and present policy options on possible US and international recognition of a Palestinian state after the war in Gaza.

The executive order comes as Biden was due to visit Michigan on Thursday to rally support from union members in a key presidential battleground state. The Democratic president has faced sharp criticism from Arab and Muslim leaders over his handling of the war with Hamas, and the shadow of the conflict has some Democrats worrying that it could have a major effect on the outcome of the November election.