Top Ben Gvir ally, former MK aide among targets of latest US and EU settler sanctions

US official says listing Benzi Gopstein part of calculated decision to target those in political orbit of most extreme Israeli officials while avoiding Ben Gvir, Smotrich for now

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Lehava chairman Benzi Gopstein seen after a court hearing in Jerusalem on January 14, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Lehava chairman Benzi Gopstein seen after a court hearing in Jerusalem on January 14, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A far-right Israeli activist and close ally to National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir was targeted in the third round of sanctions imposed by the Biden administration, aimed at clamping down on settler violence in the West Bank.

The United States Treasury Department’s designation of Benzi Gopstein was apparently coordinated with the European Union, which designated Gopstein’s Lehava anti-miscegenation group as a part of its own sanctions announced on the same day.

Sanctioning Gopstein was part of a calculated decision by the Biden administration to gradually target those in the political orbit of some of the Israeli government’s most extreme members, while holding off for now on designating ministers such as Ben Gvir or Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich themselves, a US official told The Times of Israel.

The State Department in its announcement said Lehava is “an organization whose members have engaged in destabilizing violence affecting the West Bank.” Under Gopstein’s leadership, Lehava and its members have been involved in acts or threats of violence against Palestinians, often targeting sensitive or volatile areas.

Gopstein’s far-right group Lehava opposes intermarriage and the assimilation of Jews with Arabs and tries to stifle many public activities by non-Jews in Israel. Lehava, which some lawmakers have tried to designate a terrorist group, has frequently called for action to be taken against non-Jews in order to “save the daughters of Israel.”

Gopstein was convicted in January of incitement to racism over comments. He attempted to launch a political career in 2019, receiving a top spot in Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party before being disqualified by the Supreme Court over his past incitement to racism. Even though he is not a lawmaker, he has regularly been seen accompanying Ben Gvir in Knesset meetings over the past several years.

The Treasury Department also designated two entities — the Mount Hebron Fund and Shlom Asiraich — for their roles in establishing fundraising campaigns on behalf of Yinon Levi and David Chai Chasdai, two recently US-designated extremists who engaged in violent activities targeting Palestinians and Israeli peace activists in the West Bank. The fundraising campaigns generated the equivalent of $170,000 for Levi and Chasdai, the Treasury Department said.

As a result of the sanctions, all US property and interests belonging to Gopstein, the Mount Hebron Fund and Shlom Asiraich have been blocked. Additionally, any entities owned by those sanctioned have been blocked. Americans or those residing in the US conducting financial transactions with or donating to those designated will themselves be exposed to sanctions. US visa bans have also been imposed against the extremist settlers who have been sanctioned.

Illustrative: Israeli soldiers scuffle with Jewish settlers from the Einav settlement, trying to storm the West Bank town of Deir Sharaf, near Nablus, November 2, 2023. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)

For its part, the EU placed Gopstein’s Lehava group along with what it branded as “Hilltop Youth” on its asset freeze and visa ban blacklist over their involvement in attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank.

It’s unclear what is meant by “Hilltop Youth,” given that it is not understood to be an organized group, but rather young Israelis who are known for establishing illegal outposts throughout the West Bank and sometimes clashing with IDF soldiers, Palestinians and the left-wing Israeli activists trying to protect them.

Two of the most prominent hilltop youths in recent years have been Meir Ettinger and Elisha Yered, both of whom were individually sanctioned by the EU along with settlers Neria Ben Pazi and Yinon Levi.

Ettinger is the grandson of the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, and a well-known hilltop youth activist, while Yered previously served as a spokesperson to far-right MK Limor Son Har-Melech from Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party.

Levy and Ben Pazi were designated in one of the previous rounds of settler sanctions imposed by the US.

“The listed individuals and entities are responsible for serious human rights abuses against Palestinians,” said the EU statement.

It said abuses included “torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” and “the violation of right to property and to private and family life of Palestinians in the West Bank.”

Elisha Yered, suspected of involvement in the death of a 19-year-old Palestinian in the West Bank, arrives for a hearing at the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court, August 5, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The EU, US and individual European countries imposed sanctions on Israeli extremists this year amid growing frustration over Israel’s failure to clamp down on settler violence, particularly since October 7.

US makes ‘determinations’ regarding alleged Israeli rights violations

Also on Friday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he made “determinations” regarding accusations that Israel violated a set of US laws prohibiting providing military assistance to individuals or security force units that commit gross violations of human rights.

Known as the Leahy Laws – legal guidelines authored by then-senator Patrick Leahy in the late 1990s – they prohibit providing military assistance to individuals or security force units that commit gross violations of human rights and have not been brought to justice.

Blinken’s assessment comes as the ProPublica investigative news organization reported earlier in the week that a special State Department panel known as the Israel Leahy Vetting Forum had recommended months ago to Blinken that multiple Israeli military and police units be disqualified from receiving US aid on allegations of human rights violations.

United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken gives a press conference on the last day of the G7 foreign ministers meeting on the Italian island of Capri on April 19, 2024. (Tiziana Fabi/AFP)

Blinken has yet to take action, ProPublica reported. The incidents that were the subject of allegations took place in the West Bank and mostly occurred before the Israel-Hamas war, the outlet said.

Asked at a news conference in Italy about reports that the State Department has recommended the cutting off of military aid to certain Israeli security force units over possible human rights violations in the West Bank, Blinken did not outright confirm the reports, but promised results very soon.

“I think you’re referring to the so-called Leahy Law and our work under that,” he responded. “So this is a very important law. And it’s one that we apply across the board. And when we’re doing these investigations, these inquiries, it’s something that takes time. That has to be done very carefully, both in collecting the facts and analyzing them.”

“And that’s exactly what we’ve done. And I think it’s fair to say that you’ll see results very soon. I made determinations. You can expect to see them in the days ahead,” Blinken said without providing any further elaboration.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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