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US President Joe Biden approved sanctions against four Israeli settlers accused of attacking Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
Biden signed a sweeping executive order stating that violence in the West Bank has reached “intolerable levels.”
Sanctions prevent these individuals from accessing U.S. property, assets, and the financial system.
The American decision highlights the increase in violence in the West Bank since Hamas launched an unprecedented attack on Israel on October 7.
According to the UN, since then, 370 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank. Most of them were killed by Israeli forces, but at least eight were killed by Israeli settlers, the UN said.
The new executive order means the US government has the power to impose sanctions on any foreigner who attacks, intimidates or seizes Palestinian property.
These sanctions are a rare move by the US government targeting Israelis, and come as Biden travels to the state of Michigan, which has a large Arab-American population critical of its support for Israel.
A State Department spokesperson said the sanctions “will impact these four individuals” and hopes Israel will do more to hold those responsible for settler violence accountable.
The US Treasury Department identified the four sanctioned Israelis as David Chai Chasdai, 29; Yinon Levi, 31 years old; Einan Tanjil, 21 years old; and Shalom Zicherman, 32 years old. Three of them lived in settlements in the West Bank, and one lived close to the border of the occupied region, as reported by the Treasury.
Shortly after Biden signed the executive order, Israel expressed its dissatisfaction, describing the majority of settlers in the West Bank as “law abiding.”
The statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office highlighted that Israel takes action against all offenders anywhere, arguing that extraordinary measures are not necessary.
This public disagreement signals a growing rift between the US and Israel. Although the two leaders are long-time allies, recent disagreements have emerged over the idea of creating an independent Palestinian state.
The US advocates a “two-state” solution, considering it vital for long-term stability in the region, while Netanyahu has repeatedly rejected this proposal.
Last month, the White House acknowledged that the US and Israeli governments “clearly see things differently”, dampening hopes for a restart of diplomatic negotiations and the stalled peace process between Israel and Palestine.
How violence has affected those who live in the West Bank
Since the start of the war in Gaza, violence against Palestinians in the West Bank has increased considerably. In addition to the eight Palestinians killed, another 84 were injured by settlers, according to the UN.
By early 2024, the number of people living in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem exceeded 700,000.
These settlements are illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this definition.
Some of their inhabitants are part of the extremist and ultra-religious Jewish settler movement. They believe they are returning the biblical land of Judea and Samaria – the present-day West Bank – to Israel.
This perception of a divine calling distinguishes them from other settler communities who move to occupied territories for economic reasons or to help strengthen Israel’s security in the region.
But what unites them all is the belief that they have the right, whether God-given or not, to claim land in the West Bank.
The past of the region
It is widely documented that Jewish and Arab families lived side by side in Jerusalem. However, when the city was divided between Israel and Jordan following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Jewish families fled their homes in East Jerusalem, while Arabs fled their homes in the west of the city.
The modern settlement movement began in the following decades, following the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan and its Arab allies.
In the months following the war, the first religious settlement, Kfar Etzion, was established. Today, an estimated 40,000 people live in the settlement, just 4 km from the Green Line, the border between Israel and the West Bank.
A year later, religious Zionist rabbi Moshe Levinger and his followers entered Hebron to celebrate the Jewish festival of Passover, but never left. There, on the outskirts of the city, he and his followers established Kiryat Arba.
Unlike Kfar Etzion, which enjoyed state support, Rabbi Levinger and his disciples settled in Hebron in defiance of the government, explains author and history professor at the University of Montreal, Yakov Rabkin. Historians and experts widely consider the latter to be the turning point for the religious colonization movement.
“They [colonos religiosos] went to various hills and places mentioned in the Bible, and tried to settle there, because what they want is to have all the biblical land,” says Rabkin.
Today, the number of settler communities has grown to more than 300 in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, according to Israeli NGO Paz Agora. She states that there are 146 settlements and 154 outposts. Despite international law, Israel considers settlements legal but defines outposts as illegal.
Neve Gordon, professor of international law and human rights at Queen Mary University in London, highlights that communities that start out as outposts often end up being legitimized by the State of Israel.
“They’ll bring one kind of trailer and then another trailer. And little by little they’ll get more land, and another family will move in. The next day, the army comes and puts four or five soldiers there to protect the land and secure these outposts.” .”
Today, religious Zionism is part of the political spectrum of the State of Israel.
This is supported by the push of far-right parties into the mainstream through Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government.
“They tend to make more provocative statements. They are easier to identify as avatars of this Israeli extremist current that runs throughout the government,” explains Natasha Roth-Rowland, a researcher on the Jewish far right.
Settler and Religious Zionist party leader Bezalel Smotrich has consistently advocated building more settlements in the West Bank and, in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, used incendiary language referring to Palestinians as Nazis.
In November, as finance minister, he advocated an expanded Israeli military presence and called for a ban on Palestinian olive picking near Israeli settlements.
The Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, is another name strongly associated with the religious colonization movement. He lives in the Kiryat Arba settlement and oversees Israel’s domestic police as well as the country’s border force in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
He was a member of the ultranationalist Kach movement, founded by American rabbi Meir Kahane, now banned in Israel under anti-terrorism laws. Ben-Gvir has already been convicted of inciting racism and supporting terrorism.
Much of the religious colonization movement, both on a popular and political level, has grown stronger under American influence.
In 2021, a video shared on social media, which recorded a Jewish-American settler taking possession of a Palestinian woman’s home in occupied East Jerusalem, made headlines worldwide.
“You are robbing my house,” proclaimed Muna Al-Kurd.
“If I don’t steal, someone else will,” Yaakov Fauci responded.
There are organizations that help American Jews, like Fauci, move to Israel and the occupied territories. But it is not just privately funded organizations that drive colonization movements.
Jewish-American lawyer and former US ambassador to Israel David Friedman is believed to support religious settlers with strong ties to the settlement of Beit El, or House of God in Portuguese. The settlement is home to Jacob’s Rock, the place where, in the Bible, Jacob had a dream in which God promised the land to the Israelites.
Under Donald Trump’s administration, David Friedman was involved in policies such as moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Parallels are being drawn with the histories of North American colonizers – Professor Neve Rabkin argues that those who support ultra-religious colonization movements seek to “displace Palestinians to replace them”.
Professor Yakov Rabkin agrees: “Israel’s history is intertwined with American history; the only differences in the United States were that they exterminated most of the local population, while the Israelis did not. But they are trying.”
Since the start of the war, the NGO Peace Now has recorded the establishment of six new settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. It is unclear whether these settlers are religiously inclined or moved as part of a broader security strategy.
War is a “disaster that turned into an opportunity”, says professor Neve Gordon.
The organization Youth Against Settlements, led by activist Issa Amro, who advocates an end to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, says it has been forced to stop its work.
Due to ongoing violence in his hometown of Hebron, Amro claims he has been harmed by the threat of kidnapping, arrest and persecution.
Amro’s garden used to extend to the street, but is now fenced off. The windows of his house are covered with bricks – neither light nor bullets can enter.
These are measures he says he took for his own safety. On October 7 – the day Hamas attacked Israel – the Palestinian activist claims he was taken from his own backyard, detained for 10 hours and beaten by Israeli soldiers, some of whom he claims were his settler neighbors.
“I can tell you their names. I can tell you this one lives here and that one lives there,” he says. “Most Palestinians don’t leave their homes because they are afraid,” he says.
“There is no feeling of protection. There is no feeling of security. Look how I live. Who protects me?”
*With reporting by Gareth Evans, Tom Bateman, Reha Kansara and Mohanad Hashim