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US imposes visa bans on Israeli settlers in West Bank

 Published: 12:25, 6 December 2023

US imposes visa bans on Israeli settlers in West Bank

In a rare punitive move against Israel, the Biden Administration has announced it will impose travel bans on extremist Jewish settlers implicated in recent attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank.

The secretary of state, Antony Blinken, announced the decision on Tuesday after warning Israel last week that Joe Biden’s administration would be taking action over the attacks. Blinken did not announce individual visa bans, but officials said those would be coming this week and could affect dozens of settlers and their families.

“We have underscored to the Israeli government the need to do more to hold accountable extremist settlers who have committed violent attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank,” Blinken said in a statement. “As President Biden has repeatedly said, those attacks are unacceptable.”

“Today, the state department is implementing a new visa restriction policy targeting individuals believed to have been involved in undermining peace, security or stability in the West Bank, including through committing acts of violence or taking other actions that unduly restrict civilians’ access to essential services and basic necessities,” Blinken said.

He said the US would continue to seek accountability for settler violence against Palestinians as well as Palestinian attacks against Israelis in the West Bank and Israel, particularly as tensions are extremely high due to the conflict in Gaza.

“Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority have the responsibility to uphold stability in the West Bank,” Blinken said. “Instability in the West Bank both harms the Israeli and Palestinian people and threatens Israel’s national security interests.”

Some analysts described it as a positive step. Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, tweeted: “Finally, settler vigilantes will pay a price for their violent efforts to uproot West Bank Palestinians. I hope their Israeli government sponsors will not be allowed to fly either.”

But Aaron David Miller, a former state department analyst, negotiator and adviser on Middle East issues, expressed doubt that the decision would fundamentally alter the situation. “It’s necessary but not sufficient,” he said. “It’s a welcome demonstration the administration takes seriously the reality of settler vigilantism. But as a practical matter it’s not going to change many hearts or minds.”

Miller added: “I wouldn’t call it virtue signalling but in some respects it’s similar to the administration’s ban in the wake of [journalist Jamal] Khashoggi’s murder by the Saudi regime. There were visa restrictions imposed on a number of Saudis as well.”

Tuesday’s move comes just a month after Israel was granted entry into the US visa waiver programme, which allows its citizens visa-free entry into the US. Those targeted will not be eligible for the programme, and those who hold current US visas will have them revoked.

The Biden administration has firmly backed Israel since the Hamas attack on 7 October, even as international criticism of its military operation has mounted. But in recent weeks, the White House has stepped up calls on Israel to do more to limit civilian casualties as it expands its offensive and targets densely populated southern Gaza.

Joe Biden and other senior US officials have warned repeatedly that Israel must act to stop increasing violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank. During meetings in Israel last week, Blinken told officials that the US was “ready to take action using our own authorities”.

The first bans under the new policy would be imposed on Tuesday and more designations will be made in the coming days, a state department spokesperson, Matthew Miller, told reporters, adding it would ultimately affect dozens of people.

Any Israeli with an existing US visa who was targeted would be notified that their visa was revoked, Miller added.