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US sanctions should target all settlers and the Israeli state

Biden's order imposing financial penalties on four individuals is not nearly enough to tackle the scourge of settler violence
Israeli soldiers look on as settlers from the Elon Moreh settlement scuffle with Palestinian farmers working their land in Azmut village east of Nablus in the occupied West Bank, on 24 April 2022 (AFP)

US President Joe Biden has issued an executive order targeting Israeli settlers who have attacked Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, with the White House imposing financial sanctions and visa bans against four individuals.

In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the overwhelming majority of West Bank settlers were “law-abiding citizens”, and that the Israeli government “takes action against law-breakers in every place, and therefore there is no place for exceptional steps on this measure”. 

As a Palestinian residing in the occupied West Bank and suffering on a daily basis from settler crimes, I strongly disagree. I consider Biden’s executive order to be a minor step in light of the terrifying scale of crimes committed by Israeli settlers.

Firstly, it must be emphasised that the US decision diverts attention to the settlers, while ignoring the settlements themselves. It thus gives the false impression that only a small number of settlers are terrorising Palestinians. 

In fact, the settlements are themselves illegal, and all settlers residing in them are violating international law. Biden’s executive order deliberately ignores the Israeli government, which is responsible for establishing the settlements and encouraging settlers to reside in them - even aiding their crimes and protecting them.

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The more than 700,000 settlers living in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem are doing so illegally, regardless of whether or not they commit acts of physical violence. The mere presence of a settler on stolen land is part of a campaign to expel the indigenous population and replace it with foreign settlers. 

The four settlers targeted in Biden’s order are neither isolated nor exceptional cases. Palestinians and their property have faced thousands of settler attacks. Angry mobs have attacked Palestinian villages, smashed stores, torched inhabited houses, attacked people on the street, and murdered Palestinians. Some of the worst attacks, under the protection of the Israeli army, took place in the West Bank towns of Huwwara and Turmus Ayya last year.

Suffocating communities

My hometown, Qira, is a small village about 50 kilometres north of Ramallah, surrounded by six illegal settlements built on the stolen land of neighbouring villages. The settlers are suffocating our Palestinian communities, turning our lives into unbearable hell. 

Their attacks have prevented us from using main roads, developing our infrastructure, expanding our villages and accessing water supplies. Meanwhile, the settlements have expanded, enjoying all the necessary infrastructure. 

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The space we are allowed is steadily shrinking, as we are prohibited not only from entering the settlements established on our confiscated lands, but even from cultivating the soil adjacent to them. Since 7 October, we have been prohibited from using most of the main roads, with the Israeli occupation army imposing heavy movement restrictions that force us to use alternative roads to move between towns. The main roads are reserved for settlers.

It is no secret that the Israeli government protects settlers and encourages their crimes by refraining from bringing them to justice. Some government ministers are themselves settlers or pro-settler activists, including National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Several Israeli ministers recently attended a conference that explicitly called for the transfer of Palestinians out of Gaza. 

Complicity and impunity for settlers are the unofficial Israeli state policies when it comes to violations of Palestinian rights

The real response to Biden’s order came from Israel’s extremist finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, as he pushed for the approval of 7,000 new housing units for settlers in the occupied West Bank.

Complicity and impunity for settlers are the unofficial Israeli state policies when it comes to violations of Palestinian rights. Israeli authorities rarely prosecute suspects involved in attacks against Palestinians. Last month, an Israeli settler and an off-duty police officer fatally shot 17-year-old Palestinian American Tawfiq Ajaq near Ramallah; no one was prosecuted.

In another recent case, Palestinian farmer Bilal Saleh from al-Sawiya, adjacent to my village, was fatally shot by a settler; the perpetrator was not charged. There were also no charges in the killing late last year of Ahmed Assi, a 38-year-old farmer and father of six, who was shot dead by settlers under an Israeli army escort in the town of Qarawa Bani Hassan.

Matching words with action

The Israeli human rights group Yesh Din has reported that around 93 percent of cases involving settler violence in the occupied West Bank are closed without an indictment, citing research into more than 1,500 files. The group pointed to “a longstanding systemic failure in law enforcement responses to ideologically motivated crime against Palestinians in the West Bank”.

Many settlers in the occupied West Bank are just Israeli soldiers in civilian clothes, part of a militia that the government has armed to kill more Palestinians. Israel has also eased restrictions on access to weapons more broadly in recent days.

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Raids by Israeli settlers and soldiers against towns and villages in the occupied West Bank, including my hometown, have been on the rise since the outbreak of the war on Gaza last October, killing hundreds of Palestinians.

The US administration is well aware that many of these terrorist settlers hold American citizenship, with US-based organisations contributing to the financing of illegal settlement construction. If Washington is serious about wanting to stop the scourge of settler violence, it should make American settlers liable to US civil and criminal law, and take legal measures such as issuing arrest warrants. 

The US administration should also take steps to prevent the collection of donations from American associations and individuals for the benefit of illegal settlements.

The US has always declared its opposition to settlement building, viewed as an obstacle to peace and its vision of a two-state solution. Today, we must call on the US administration to match its words with actions, and to impose sanctions on the Israeli government that is a partner in crime to the settlers terrorising my people. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Fareed Taamallah is a Palestinian journalist who lives in Ramallah. He is a farmer and political and environmental activist.
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