The State Department said Tuesday that it will impose travel bans on extremist Jewish settlers implicated in a rash of recent attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank, as well as on Palestinians involved in attacks on Israelis.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the step after warning Israel last week that US President Joe Biden’s administration would be taking action over the attacks.
The administration has firmly backed Israel since Hamas’s onslaught of October 7, even as international criticism of the war in Gaza has mounted. The US has refrained from outright criticism of Israel’s campaign — while warning it to do everything to limit civilian casualties — but it has been increasingly outspoken about settler violence in the West Bank and Israel’s failure to respond to US calls to stop it.
In a statement announcing the decision, Blinken said that the US has “underscored to the Israeli government the need to do more to hold accountable extremist settlers who have committed violent attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank. As President Biden has repeatedly said, those attacks are unacceptable.”
“Today, the State Department is implementing a new visa restriction policy targeting individuals believed to have been involved in undermining peace, security or stability in the West Bank, including through committing acts of violence or taking other actions that unduly restrict civilians’ access to essential services and basic necessities,” Blinken added.
He said the US would continue to seek accountability for settler violence against Palestinians as well as Palestinian attacks against Israelis in the West Bank and Israel, particularly as tensions are extremely high due to the conflict in Gaza.
“Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority have the responsibility to uphold stability in the West Bank,” Blinken said. “Instability in the West Bank both harms the Israeli and Palestinian people and threatens Israel’s national security interests.”
The State Department did not lay out what criteria would be used to determine such a ban, and if an indictment or conviction would be necessary, nor did it elaborate on what could constitute “undermining peace,” a fairly vague charge.
State Department spokesman Matt Miller said Tuesday that the US will not be publishing the names of those who will be barred from entering the United States.
Instead, those individuals and some of their family members who currently have visas to the US will be informed that they are no longer valid. Blacklisted individuals who do not currently have valid US visas will only learn that they’ve been sanctioned when they apply for a visa and are denied, Miller said.
The decision not to publish the list of targeted individuals is meant to serve as a deterrent against those considering taking part in West Bank violence who won’t know whether they’ve been blacklisted or not, a US official told The Times of Israel earlier this week.
For impacted Israelis, this likely will mean they will only be notified of the entry ban imposed against them days before their planned travel. Impacted Palestinians, who are not part of the program and therefore must often apply for a visa often months ahead of time, will accordingly learn that they’re blacklisted earlier.
Tuesday’s move comes just a month after Israel was granted entry into the US Visa Waiver Program, which allows its citizens visa-free entry into the US. Those targeted by the action will not be eligible for the program, and those who hold current US visas will have them revoked.
The idea for the visa ban was first announced last month in an op-ed Biden penned in The Washington Post.
Asked about the decision at a press conference Tuesday evening, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said that Israel is a nation of laws, and nobody outside of security forces has the right to use any form of violence.
“There are extremists,” Gallant said, noting that he has signed administrative detention orders in a number of such cases. “We can’t act like our enemies, they want to expel us and kill us; we want security for our people, and therefore we can’t use the ways in which they act… and we don’t need others to explain that to us.”
War cabinet minister Benny Gantz said at the press conference that the phrase “settler violence” should not be used, “because it does not represent the settlers in Judea and Samaria, who in more than 99% of cases are normative, law-abiding people… There is violence by extremists and we must condemn it completely.”
In response to the move, the head of the Yesha Council settlement umbrella group, Shlomo Ne’eman, slammed the US for attempting to draw an equivalence between Israeli and Palestinian violence.
“While the State of Israel is in the midst of a war for its home, a war of light against darkness, the US is trying to place on the opposite end of the scales a few individual cases of criminals who took the law into their own hands,” he said in a statement. “Who will be standing at the checkpoints to enter the US — representatives of B’Tselem [a left-wing NGO] or representatives of Hamas?”
Ne’eman suggested that “a maximum of 10 people” would be subject to such a ban, “and the truth will come to light and the whole world will understand that there is not and never was a phenomenon of ‘settler violence.'”
An Israeli official told The Times of Israel last month that the government has stepped up its activities to combat settler violence, which it argues is being perpetrated by a “nucleus” of several hundred extremists at most. Several arrests have indeed been made in recent weeks.
Based on military estimates, the vast majority of the 200 Palestinians killed in the West Bank since October 7 were shot dead during clashes amid arrest raids. Around 60 percent of them, according to data seen by The Times of Israel, were armed with either a firearm or an explosive device.
The IDF is aware of at least three cases of uninvolved Palestinians being killed by troops in recent weeks, and a handful of cases of settlers killing Palestinians, which are still under investigation.