While the world’s attention has rightly been focused on the tragedy underway in Gaza, another deadly drama has been playing out nearby in the occupied West Bank. Since October 7, Jewish settlers have significantly escalated violent attacks against Palestinians, displacing hundreds from their villages and claiming more land for Israel. In the first month and a half of conflict, the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din recorded 225 incidents of Israeli civilian violence against 93 Palestinian communities in the West Bank. The United Nations’ humanitarian agency OCHA reported that since 2022, such acts had displaced 2,000 Palestinians, 43 percent of them after October 7 this year. Radical settlers have killed eight Palestinians, vandalized property and dislocated entire communities.
Palestinians facing settler violence have few options to defend themselves. OCHA has documented numerous examples of Israeli police and military forces being complicit or refusing to intervene in attacks. According to Yesh Din, 93 percent of investigative files into ideologically-motivated crimes against Palestinians are closed without charges being brought. Israeli rights group B’Tselem says settlers are using the cover of war to attack Palestinians “virtually unchecked, with no one trying to stop them before, during or after the fact.”
Senior officials in Washington have publicly decried the violence. President Joe Biden said in October that violence by settlers was “pouring gasoline” on an already inflamed situation and. that “it has to stop now.” In mid-November, Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Israel to take immediate measures “to de-escalate tensions in the West Bank, including by confronting rising levels of settler extremist violence.” On December 5, the administration announced a new visa policy targeting individuals believed to have been involved in undermining peace, security or stability in the West Bank, including through violence or restricting civilian access to essential services and basic necessities.
There is little doubt that Biden and Blinken are sincere in their concern. The issue is a threat to key U.S. regional interests. Washington has championed the two-state solution (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) for decades and has long recognized that the settlements are a major obstacle to a resolution of the conflict. Washington also wants to contain the current fighting inside Gaza and prevent any regional escalation. An explosion of violence in the West Bank would both increase the risk of involving other actors, such as Hezbollah, and potentially destabilize U.S. allies, particularly Jordan. Both would be deeply detrimental to American foreign policy goals.
In early November, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned violence by some settlers and vowed to “deal with them with all the severity of the law.” But a few hours after making that statement, his office issued a clarification, claiming that Biden’s accusations against the settlers were “baseless” and blaming the problem on “a tiny handful of people who take the law into their own hands.” In practice, Netanyahu’s approach has ranged from indifference to tacit acquiescence.
This reflects the restraints on Netanyahu’s maneuverability in placating his American interlocutors, given the ideologically hardline members of his cabinet who are either settlers themselves or deeply sympathetic to the settlement movement. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, for example, has argued that the Palestinians do not exist as a people, and recently called for the West Bank town of Huwara to be “wiped out.” He later proposed creating “sterile” buffer zones around Israeli settlements, where Palestinians would not be allowed. National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir also downplayed settler violence during a cabinet meeting in early November, cheered on settlers and soldiers provoking Palestinians, and has personally handed out automatic weapons at highly publicized events.
As a weakened prime minister fighting for his political life means he is beholden to such hard-right members of his coalition. Therefore, America cannot expect the Netanyahu government to police itself and work proactively to restrain settler violence. Washington will need to exert significantly more pressure to ensure that American interests are respected, and its broader humanitarian values are upheld.
While the Biden administration’s new visa policy is a positive step, it is a tepid one, and the U.S. should do much more to rein in settler violence.
First, it should undo some of the more egregious pro-settler policies enacted during the latter days of the preceding Trump administration. It should restore the long-standing State Department legal position that held Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank are inconsistent with international law. This policy was first articulated in 1978 and endured through several Republican and Democratic administrations. It was altered in 2019 by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in an effort to curry favor from evangelical voters in support of his possible presidential campaign. The Biden administration could also reinstate the distinction between goods produced in Israel and those from the West Bank, which was annulled in another shift championed by Pompeo to make it harder for American consumers to boycott settlement products.
Second, the administration should improve the monitoring of settler violence. Palestinian and Israeli NGOs tracking and documenting attacks, such as B’Tselem, Yesh Dish, and the West Bank Protection Consortium, should be supported financially and through frequent meetings with U.S. embassy staff. Washington should also carefully monitor Israeli prosecutions of settler violence and disciplinary actions against security forces who are complicit in violence and intimidation. This information should be made publicly available.
Third, the State Department should review the recently approved sale of 24,000 U.S. assault rifles to Israel. Many both within and outside the administration have expressed concerns that these weapons could end up in the hands of violent settlers, and despite Israeli pledges that they would not. These concerns that appear to have delayed the first shipment of 4,500 M-16s. The administration should withhold these shipments unless Israel agrees to robust mechanisms to ensure that no American-built weapons end up in the hands of violent settlers. It should also phase the shipments carefully over time and proceed only on the basis of full compliance.
Finally, the State Department should reopen the American consulate in East Jerusalem, with a dedicated team to monitor settler violence. The Biden administration has pledged to reopen the consulate, which was closed by the Trump administration in 2019, but it has delayed the move in the face of sustained Israeli opposition. A decision to reopen it, with a focus on monitoring and curbing settler violence, would send a strong signal that the administration is serious on the issue.
For too long, American policymakers have turned a blind eye to settlement expansion, which is both illegal under international law and detrimental to the goal of two states. The escalation of violence by settlers marks a particularly dangerous phase of the current conflict. There is a consensus in Washington that it poses a threat to U.S. national security interests. However, much more can and should be done to match rhetoric with action. Indeed, the issue represents an alignment of moral imperative and realpolitik: a rare opportunity that Washington should seize.