Biden’s Sanctions on Israeli Settlers Are Just for Show

Joe Biden has announced sanctions on Israeli settlers in Palestinian territory. But the sanctions themselves are toothless — a way to signal displeasure with the Israeli government without actually doing anything to change the situation.

President Joe Biden walking on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, on February 26, 2024. (Aaron Schwartz / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Fathi Nimer noticed the new checkpoints on the way to his farm almost immediately after October 7.

The trip from Ramallah in the central West Bank in Palestine used to take Nimer just half an hour. Now he takes a circuitous route that’s more than twice as long to avoid Israeli checkpoints as he says illegal settlers are stepping up their slow colonization of Palestine.

“There are new checkpoints popping up all over the place that we never heard of before,” Nimer said in a video interview from Ramallah. “It’s absolutely unpredictable and the soldiers are incredibly trigger-happy. Every time you pass the checkpoint, it’s a big risk.”

Nimer, a Palestine policy fellow at the Al-Shabaka think tank, counts himself lucky. In Ramallah, Palestine’s administrative capital, he’s relatively insulated from settlers. In other parts of the West Bank, Nimer says the Israeli military campaign in Gaza has spurred settlers, opening what he describes as a second front of the war.

“After October 7, the settlers became much more emboldened, and the army is supporting them even more openly now,” he said. “And they’re expanding settlements. They’ve been taking out people from isolated communities, especially around Hebron — we’re talking over a thousand people that were kicked out of their communities — they go and plant Israeli flags and they say in twenty-four hours we want to come back and not find any of you.”

The actions of the Israeli settlers prompted a surprising rebuke from the administration of US president Joe Biden: sanctions on four Israeli settlers, a strategy often reserved for terrorists and drug lords.

Yet the American sanctions, which were followed by similar announcements in the United Kingdom and France, have been met with scorn from critics who see them as a toothless measure to boost Biden’s flagging poll numbers in an election year.

“It’s a little bit like there’s a raging fire, they pour a cup of water on it, and at the same time they’re providing gasoline to fan the flames,” said Rashid Khalidi, a professor of history at Columbia University and author of the book The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, in an interview with Jacobin. “Sanctioning a few individuals who are part of a settlement drive that has been backed by the Israeli government for fifty-six years is absurd in and of itself. You either sanction the multibillion-dollar driver of this, which is the Israeli government and American tax-free donations, or you don’t pretend that you’re opposed to settlements.”

Four Individuals

The sanctions came via executive order early last month and apply to four individuals engaged in actions “that threaten the peace, security, or stability of the West Bank,” according to a statement from the State Department.

The order puts a block on all of the target’s assets in the United States, and prohibits any transactions with the target, either by Americans or anyone within or transiting through the United States. The sanctions also block any contribution of funds, goods, or services to the targeted individuals and come along with a travel ban to the United States.

Such sanctions are meant to have a freezing effect even outside the country. Even foreign banks can run afoul of sanctions if payments are processed through the US financial system, leading most major financial institutions to steer well clear of any individuals that make the Office of Foreign Assets Control list. On paper at least, it’s a powerful, blunt instrument.

But the effect of sanctions on the settlements will depend on the administration’s appetite to keep up the pressure.

“It’s entirely up to one person and one person only, and his name is Joe Biden,” said Michael Omer-Man, the director of research for Israel-Palestine at nonprofit group Democracy for the Arab World Now. If applied more broadly, sanctions may “force Israel into a reckoning where it has to choose between holding on to the West Bank and settlements, and maintaining an economy that’s connected in the world in a way that allows it to flourish in the way it has in the past.”

For Omer-Man, US sanctions have power not because of what they do, but because of what they have the potential to do.

“If they’re escalated to people and entities and institutions that are involved more systematically in not only the structural but the physical violence that emanates from the act of settlement, then it could force that reckoning,” he added.

Empty Gesture

Yet for all their potential, the current sanctions are unlikely to do much.

“It’s a joke, frankly, that anybody should take this terribly seriously,” said Khalidi. “It’ll have an effect, but the ability of sanctioned entities to get around sanctions is legion, it’s the stuff of legend.”

There’s already some evidence of potential skirting around sanctions. Last month, the AP reported that an online fundraiser had collected over $140,000 for a sanctioned settler, Yinon Levi, before the page was taken down. The contact listed for the fundraiser on the Israeli website Givechak was Levi’s brother, Itamar, according to the AP, potentially implicating not just donors but all companies involved in processing the funds.

Meanwhile, US officials seeking to uphold the sanctions will not find a willing partner in the Israeli finance ministry.

While the central bank has said that Israeli banks must comply with the sanctions, and national banks are so far heeding the Biden administration’s decision, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich pledged to use “all available tools” to stop the banks from acting against settlers.

But beyond the government’s pushback and the potential loopholes in any sanctions is the fact that unless sanctions are applied more widely, they will do little to stop the recent wave of settler action.

Israeli nonprofit Yesh Din, which tracks settler violence against Palestinians, found that in the month and a half after the October 7 attack, settler attacks intensified. The group logged two hundred twenty-five incidents of Israeli violence in ninety-three Palestinian communities in the West Bank over that period.

“This is not just a malfunction of law enforcement in the West Bank, but a policy by Israel, who is complicit in the violent acts of revenge that Israeli settlers perpetrate on innocent Palestinians,” the group wrote in a press release accompanying the data.

The sheer scale of the settlements, which are staunchly backed by the government, also makes it difficult to meaningfully halt the process. Advocacy group Peace Now, which keeps tabs on settlements, documented 146 total settlements across the West Bank with over 465,000 settlers — about 5 percent of the total Israeli population. Outposts have also rapidly increased, according to data published by the group, with twenty-six new outposts set up in 2023, a record increase.

Over 2023, the Israeli government also promotes plans for the construction of a record 12,349 housing units in West Bank settlements and has set aside billions of shekels for settlement improvements in the 2024 budget, according to Peace Now. The budget will likely get final parliamentary approval later this month.

For Nimer, the pace of the recent settlement drive is, itself, a tactic.

“They kind of test the waters, take control, establish everything, and then go, ‘We can’t roll back now,’” he said. “The existence of settlers to begin with is a Geneva Convention violation, but nobody seems to care.”

Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention holds that occupying powers must not “deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies,” and groups like Amnesty International have publicly argued that Israeli settlements are illegal under international law.

Election Play

The Biden administration’s turn comes at a time when the candidate is bleeding support ahead of presidential elections later this year. A February 27 Data for Progress poll found that a majority of respondents disapproved of the way Biden is handling the Israel-Palestine conflict and that a majority of voters approve of the United States calling for a permanent cease-fire and de-escalation of violence in Gaza.

The effect is more pronounced among younger voters. A December New York Times/Siena poll showed nearly three-quarters of voters between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine disapproved of Biden’s Gaza policy. All of this at a time when Biden faces an uphill battle against Donald Trump in November.

Campaign officials received a stark reminder of voter anger after more than one hundred thousand voters in the Michigan primary last month voted “uncommitted” in a protest driven by pro-Palestinian activists.

Against this backdrop, some see Biden’s sanctions announcement as a way to signal displeasure with the Israeli government without actually doing anything to change the situation.

“Joe Biden had three and a half years to reverse policies hostile to the Palestinians established by the previous administration and did absolutely nothing,” said Khalidi. The administration “has the sense, and it pretends that it isn’t the case, but that it may lose key constituencies because of its policies on Palestine. It’s purely opportunistic, purely cynical.”

Up to Biden

Still, even this limited action demonstrates an important shift in the Biden administration’s policy toward Palestine, something that some observers see as a positive sign for the future.

“Sanctions are not a punitive measure. They’re not a law enforcement measure. They’re not an accountability measure. They are a tool for creating leverage within foreign policy,” said Omer-Man, adding that additional sanctions rolled out by the Biden administration could send a clear message. “The sanctions have the potential to defund the entire settlement movement, and if Israel isn’t careful, that could deliver a really painful blow to the entire Israeli economy.”

Yet without political appetite, the limited sanctions put in place may struggle against a far-reaching system of settlement and colonization backed by the Israeli government, the military, and foreign donors. Changing that reality will require far more than a symbolic gesture.

“If there was a political will, it wouldn’t be so hard for the government and the police to stop it,” said Hagit Ofran, the head of Settlement Watch at Peace Now, which tracks the progress of Israeli settlers across Palestine. “There are settlers who get all that they want and feel like they have more rights than Palestinians, there’s nothing to stop them.”

“If you want to end the violence, eventually you will have to end the occupation,” she added.