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White House will sanction Israeli settlers in the West Bank who attack Palestinians

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Biden administration is putting violent Israeli settlers in the West Bank on notice. Any assets they might have in the U.S. will be frozen if they are involved in attacking Palestinians or other civilians. Here's White House spokesman John Kirby of the National Security Council, speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One.

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JOHN KIRBY: It's got to stop. It's unacceptable. It's a detriment to peace and security, certainly there in the West Bank, but to the Palestinian people in general.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Michele Kelemen is here to talk about the administration's move. Michele, what did President Biden actually do today?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: So the president signed an executive order authorizing sanctions. And basically, that gives the U.S. a new tool to pressure Israel to rein in settler violence in the occupied West Bank. But so far, Ari, only four people have been placed on this new blacklist. The U.S. says it has to have detailed evidence against them. One is actually accused of attacking Israeli human rights activists. Three out of the four of them have been prosecuted by Israel already. And one of them told NPR that, you know, he's never been to the U.S., doesn't have plans to, doesn't have property here. So Yinon Levi seemed surprised by the sanctions, though a settlement watchdog group says he is known for attacking Palestinians and human rights activists, and he has been involved in the demolition of Palestinian homes.

SHAPIRO: Given the widespread reports we've heard of settler attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank, particularly since October 7, four names doesn't sound like much. Is it mostly symbolic?

KELEMEN: Well, it does seem to be mostly about the messaging at the moment. Take a listen to what State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said today at his briefing.

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MATTHEW MILLER: Part of that message is not just to the government of Israel, but also to people who themselves - who might be considering engaging in acts of violence, to let them know that the United States government is watching and will take action. And I also think you should not conclude that we are done through our actions today.

KELEMEN: You know, last year the U.S. imposed visa bans on dozens of Israeli settlers. If you get on this new blacklist, you'll have your bank accounts frozen in the U.S. So this is, in a way, a stronger warning to extremists in the West Bank. But I will note that the U.S. is not taking any actions against American citizens who are settlers in the West Bank. There are thousands of them. Nor is the U.S. punishing Israeli government officials who are backing violent settlers. Remember; we're talking about land that the Palestinians hope will one day be part of their state. The United Nations has recorded nearly 500 settler attacks on Palestinians just since the Gaza war broke out last October, and that means more death and displacement of Palestinians.

SHAPIRO: You mentioned Israeli government officials. What are they saying about this U.S. action?

KELEMEN: Yeah. The prime minister's office put out a statement saying the vast majority of settlers are law-abiding citizens, and Israel does hold to account anyone breaking the law. But my colleague Daniel Estrin talked to an expert on settler violence, an Israeli named Dror Etkes, and he says extremists really walk freely in the West Bank. Take a listen.

DROR ETKES: The law enforcement system in Israel prefers not to deal with these type of people. And this is why we came to the point that the American administration is, you know, sanctioning them.

KELEMEN: You know, the U.S. says it has seen Israel take some steps, but just not enough. And this has really been a point of contention between Benjamin Netanyahu's government and the Biden administration for a long time, even before this latest war in Gaza.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Michele Kelemen. Thank you.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.