US fundraisers for violent West Bank settlers raise thousands, despite sanctions

Experts warn that anyone who donates money to a sanctioned person or group puts themself at risk, after the US and UK slap restrictions on seven Israelis accused of violent attacks

Yinon Levi, an Israeli recently sanctioned by the United States, attends a Knesset Economic Committee meeting on February 14, 2024 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90).
Yinon Levi, an Israeli recently sanctioned by the United States, attends a Knesset Economic Committee meeting on February 14, 2024 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90).

AP — When the Biden administration imposed sanctions this month against Israeli settler Yinon Levi for allegedly assaulting Palestinian civilians in the West Bank, his supporters quickly sprang into action.

Within days, an online fundraiser collected more than $140,000 for Levi and his unauthorized settler outpost from over 3,000 donors worldwide. Now, those contributions may be putting donors, crowdfunding sites and the financial services firms that process the payments at risk of penalties for violating the US sanctions.

“It’s not even a close call,” said Britt Mosman, a former attorney at the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the US government agency that enforces sanctions.

She said any American who donates money to a sanctioned person or group puts themself at risk. “It is a pretty straightforward application of the sanctions prohibitions,” she said.

Levi is among seven hard-line settlers targeted this month by the US and Britain for alleged attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank. The sanctions prevent them from accessing the US financial system and expose them to an asset freeze, as well as travel and visa bans in the UK. Israeli banks froze the settlers’ personal bank accounts in response.

In Levi’s case, funds from the crowdsourcing campaign, raised on the Israeli website Givechak, were collected by a nonprofit under the auspices of the Israeli settler council in the area.

Screen capture from the Givechak website of the crowd funding campaign for Yinon Levi, the founder of the illegal Meitarim Farm West Bank outpost after he was put on a US sanctions list. (Screen capture, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

“A few days ago, Yinon Levi’s accounts were confiscated in a scandalous decision,” read a note on the fundraising page before it was taken down. “All donations will go to the further development of the farm and the land of Israel.”

Sanctions experts say the order applies to US citizens and companies involved in the campaigns — and gives the US government authority to blacklist Israeli entities allowing US citizens or companies to violate sanctions. The Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network also alerted US financial institutions against doing business with groups that support or have previously supported settler violence in the West Bank.

Two crowdfunding pages for sanctioned settlers have now been taken down.

Some companies involved with the crowdfunding have taken action to disentangle themselves from the settlers, Israeli media said. Their reactions show how the US and British sanctions, aimed at just a handful of individuals, could ripple widely in the intertwined global financial system.

Eitay Mack, an Israeli human rights lawyer, said crowdfunding campaigns have become crucial to raising money for settlement outposts. While Israel has established scores of settlements across the territory, the outposts are not authorized, though the government gives them tacit support. The international community overwhelmingly considers all West Bank settlements illegal and obstacles to peace.

“This is a huge loophole that has been going on for years,” Mack said. “If the crowdfunding could be stopped, this could be a game changer. The outposts are not able to operate without this money.”

The entrance to the Meitarim Industrial Zone, near the Meitarim farm outpost in the South Hebron Hills, Feb. 19, 2024 (AP/Mahmoud Illean).

Levi founded Meitarim Farm in 2021 in the South Hebron Hills, according to a contract between him and the local regional council, shared with the Associated Press by anti-settlement watchdog group Peace Now. The outpost’s development was helped by crowdsourcing — a campaign on the website JGive, started by a non-profit, raised nearly $6,000.

As the outpost developed, over 300 people from four nearby Palestinian hamlets fled their homes, citing violence by Levi and other settlers, Peace Now said.

After the US sanctions were announced, a fundraiser popped up on Givechak, run by the “Mount Hebron Fund.” The contact information listed a government email address, indicating it was linked to the Har Hebron Regional Council. The fund has an account with Bank Leumi, putting the bank at potential risk of US penalties.

The fundraiser’s contact was Levi’s brother, Itamar, to whom Levi transferred ownership of a company he co-owned, apparently to try to skirt sanctions, Israeli media reported. Even after the page was taken down, Itamar Levi continued to accept donations to a Bank Leumi account, emails obtained by the AP showed.

Levi, his brother, the fund and the council declined to comment.

The Meitarim Industrial Zone, near the Meitarim farm outpost in the South Hebron Hills, West Bank, Monday, Feb. 19, 2024 (AP/Mahmoud Illean).

Givechak does not divulge donors’ whereabouts, but it is possible to donate from the US. Several donors wrote their names in English. The page was circulated on American social media platforms.

A major donor was listed as Chaim Ben Pesach, head of an ultranationalist Jewish group designated as a terrorist organization by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Ben Pesach posted the page to X, formerly Twitter, urging followers to “help the heroes before we lose our sovereignty completely.” Contacted by AP, he denied making the 5,000 shekel ($1,500) donation, but said Levi’s children were “victims of the Biden administration’s anti-Israel and antisemitic sanctions.”

After the page was taken down, a clearing company refused to transfer the funds to Levi’s family, which filed a lawsuit to try to secure the money, according to legal documents shared with the AP by The Democratic Bloc, an Israeli NGO monitoring far-right groups.

Many of the crowdfunding sites use the popular payment app Bit, owned by Israeli Bank Hapoalim. Bank spokesperson Sharona Levi declined to say whether the bank was taking measures — only that it “respects and complies with international sanctions.”

Hashomer Yosh, a government-funded group that sends volunteers to work on West Bank farms, both legal and illegal, sent volunteers to Levi’s outpost, a November 13 Facebook post said. It linked to a JGive page recruiting “armed volunteers” that raised nearly $24,000.

JGive took down a fundraising page on its site for Levi’s outpost after the AP requested comment and said it had blocked donations in compliance with the sanctions order. It said other campaigns were “in full compliance with all and any applicable laws and regulations.”

Yehuda Shaffer, an international expert on sanctions and former deputy state attorney of Israel, said he didn’t think the US would go after Israeli banks for their involvement in crowdfunding campaigns. The sanctions appear more like “lip service” to address Palestinian concerns, he said.

“My feeling is that this is much less serious than Ukrainian sanctions,” he said.

Shaffer said it was more likely the banks would cut ties with groups that enable sanctions violations to maintain good relations with American banks and avoid risk.

David Chai Chasdai appears at a hearing at the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court on July 2, 2013. (Yossi Zeliger/FLASH90)

A fundraiser for David Chai Chasdai, another settler sanctioned by the US, raised over $31,000 on the New York-based site Charidy. The page was taken down after the AP requested comment.

The Biden order said Chasdai “initiated and led” a violent rampage last year in the Palestinian town of Huwara by scores of Israeli settlers who set dozens of cars and homes on fire after two settlers were killed by a Palestinian gunman.

The group collecting funds on Charidy is listed as Shlom Asiraich, which raises money for imprisoned Jewish extremists. The crowdfunding site has been shared in at least one WhatsApp group, on X and on Facebook.

Mack, the human rights lawyer, said crowdfunding has significantly bolstered settler outposts.

In 2022, he wrote to European Union authorities seeking sanctions against Moshe Sharvit, a settler sanctioned by Britain. After Israeli media published Mack’s letter, Sharvit’s family turned to crowdfunding, raising $133,878. The Givechak page remains up.

Israel’s Bank Supervisor rejected a request from Mack to prevent the transfer of funds to Sharvit, saying it was a “political security issue” not under its jurisdiction.

Israeli media reported Sunday that Paybox, a payment app, had suspended Sharvit’s account.

Givechak and Charidy declined to comment.

The sanctions may also impact prominent Jewish organizations like the Jewish National Fund, a 120-year-old group known for acquiring land, planting trees and carrying out development projects in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Haaretz reported in October that JNF spent over $1.1 million over the past two years for programs for troubled youth working on unauthorized outposts, including Sharvit’s.

JNF told the AP it didn’t support the “operation of the farms or the owners of the farms and certainly not the activities of the farm of Moshe Sharvit directly, only the at-risk youths.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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