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Biden orders top aides to prepare reprimands for violent Israeli settlers in West Bank

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President Joe Biden directed top officials to prepare visa bans and sanctions for extremist Israeli settlers attacking and displacing Palestinians in the West Bank, according to an internal document read to POLITICO.

The Cabinet memo, sent to senior aides like Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Friday, orders their agencies “to develop policy options for expeditious action against those responsible for the conduct of violence in the West Bank.”

A senior U.S. official read sections of the memo to POLITICO on Saturday evening shortly after Biden published an op-ed in The Washington Post revealing his intentions for such a move. “The United States is prepared to take our own steps, including issuing visa bans against extremists attacking civilians in the West Bank,” he wrote in the op-ed.

The directive comes as the Biden administration aims to show that it’s supporting Palestinian civilians in need, even as it staunchly defends Israel’s retaliation against Hamas, and while members of the president’s party seek conditions on military aid to Washington’s ally.

The targets for reprimands are broadly defined in the memo. They include people or entities that “have directly or indirectly engaged in actions or policies that threaten the security or stability of the West Bank,” take “actions that intimidate civilians in the West Bank with the purpose or effect of forcing displacement actions in the West Bank,” or make moves “that constitute human rights abuses or violations and actions that significantly obstruct, disrupt or prevent efforts to achieve a two-state solution.”

The memo notes that Biden sees the settler-violence issue as a “serious threat” to peace among Israelis and Palestinians and destabilizing throughout the Middle East.

The decision to issue the directive came after intense debate on the topic, with national security adviser Jake Sullivan and deputy Jon Finer offering their direct input during a dedicated internal process, the official said.

POLITICO has not seen the memo, and the official was granted anonymity to read from a sensitive internal document. The White House declined to comment.

Israeli settlers have been moving into the West Bank for years, and incidents of violence were already growing after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power nearly a year ago. But the intensity of the long-running issue has grown since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people.

Yesh Din, an Israeli rights group, reports that 197 Palestinians in the West Bank have been killed by settlers or Israeli forces since Oct. 7. The United Nations reports that, in the same time frame, at least 121 Palestinian households — about 1,150 people, including 452 children — have been displaced by settler violence and access restrictions.

Daily incidents of settler violence rose from three a day earlier this year to seven since the attacks, per the United Nations. About 11 Palestinian communities have been completely abandoned in 2023 alone, according to the West Bank Protection Consortium, six of them since Hamas’ assault.

Biden has often condemned the rise in violence. “I continue to be alarmed about extremist settlers attacking Palestinians in the West Bank,” he said in October, equating the attacks to “pouring gasoline on fire.”

“They’re attacking Palestinians in places that they’re entitled to be, and it has to stop. They have to be held accountable,” Biden added.

On Friday, Blinken urged the Israeli government to confront “rising levels of settler extremist violence” during a call with Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz.

The president initially stood firmly behind Israel, saying it needed to strike back at the militant group in Gaza. Later, the administration faced pressure to alleviate the growing humanitarian crisis, eventually working with regional partners to get aid into Gaza for its 2.3 million residents starved of food, water, fuel and medical attention.

That was too little too late for some Biden voters who say they won’t pull the lever for him in 2024 over this Israel-Hamas policy.

Pressure from within Biden’s party is also mounting in Congress. Two Democrats on Thursday, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Dan Goldman (D-N.Y.), sent a letter urging him to do more to curb settler violence.

Progressives want the administration to call for a cease-fire in the war that has killed more than 11,000 people in Gaza, according to Hamas-led Gaza health authorities. Mainstream Democrats in the Senate and House are quietly discussing how to impose conditions on future military aid to Israel.

On Saturday evening, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who this week held a lunch for Senate Democrats to discuss the war, said he supported certain conditions like Israel halting settler violence and “an end to the indiscriminate bombing.”