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Takeaways from AP’s report on sanctioned settlers in the West Bank

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SOUTH HEBRON HILLS, West Bank (AP) — More than a dozen Israeli settlers — as well as two affiliated farms and four groups — have been targeted by international sanctions over accusations of attacks and harassment against Palestinians in the West Bank.

The measures are meant as a deterrent. They expose people to asset freezes and travel and visa bans.

But the measures have had minimal impact, instead emboldening settlers as attacks and land grabbling escalate. Communities donated money and held fundraisers, making tens of thousands of dollars for some sanctioned settlers. And at least one far-right government official, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, vowed to intervene of sanctioned settler’s behalf.

Three sanctioned settlers — Yinon Levi; his father-in-law, Noam Federman; and Elisha Yered — told The Associated Press the measures against them were, at most, an annoyance.

Meanwhile, Palestinians in the West Bank say sanctions are mostly futile with ongoing verbal and physical harassment by settlers.

Here’s what to know from AP’s report.

TURBOCHARGED EXPANSION

Settlement expansion has been ongoing since Israel seized the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war.

Some 500,000 Israelis have settled there; the international community largely considers their presence illegal. Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s current coalition — the most right-wing in Israeli history, with settlers themselves in key positions — expansion has been turbocharged.

Palestinians say Israeli outposts are expanding and shrinking their access to land, and settler violence against them has soared since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack that sparked the war with Israel.

Land seized through illegal outposts has more than doubled since then, settlement watchdog Kerem Navot says.

U.S. officials have repeatedly raised concerns about surging settler violence. Israel has said it’s calling for settlers to stand down and investigating violent incidents. But rights groups accuse the government and army of complicity with the settlers.

In March, even the Israeli army complained about the extent to which the government intervenes on behalf of settlers. An internal document, seen by AP and published by The New York Times, said the army is routinely denied authorization to act against illegal building by Israelis and regularly authorized to act against Palestinians.

SANCTIONS AS AN ANNOYANCE

The sanctions prohibit financial institutions and residents in the issuing country from providing funds to a person or entity. Even though Israeli banks aren’t obliged to freeze accounts, many do so to maintain relations with banks — particularly for U.S. sanctions — and avoid risk.

But for sanctioned settlers, the implications didn’t last long.

When settler Yinon Levi was sanctioned by the U.S. in February, he said his Israeli bank froze his accounts and within days, he couldn’t pay his mortgage or children’s school and activities fees. But his community raised thousands of dollars for him. Two months post-sanctions, he was granted access to his money.

Levi said he founded Meitarim Farm in 2021 to wanted to protect the area from being overtaken by Palestinians. Since then, activists say, more than 300 people from four nearby hamlets have been pushed off their land.

Since gaining access to his money in April, Levi said, he’s never been refused a request. The bank gave him a monthly limit of $8,000 in withdrawals, he said, but he nearly doubled that in the first few weeks.

U.S. Treasury didn’t respond to emailed requests for comment on Levi’s claims, restrictions for sanctioned settlers and monitoring mechanisms.

The spokesperson for Bank Leumi, Levi’s bank and a major Israeli financial institution, didn’t respond to calls and messages seeking comment on settlers’ accounts and transactions.

On the other side of the West Bank, in a makeshift clubhouse on a hilltop near the settlement of Maskiyot, Elisha Yered said sanctions haven’t slowed expansion goals.

“Only settling the land will bring security,” Yered said. “Anyone who thinks this will break us is mistaken. We’ve survived harder things than this.”

LITTLE REPRIEVE, PALESTINIANS SAY

Eight Palestinians in two hamlets in the South Hebron Hills told AP they’re still being pushed off their land, with several alleging Levi has threatened them since sanctioned.

One man said that in February, while out with his sheep, Levi held him at gunpoint, recounted all the places he’d forced people away, and threatened to kill him if he returned.

“He told me, ‘I displaced people from Zanuta to ad-Dhahiriya… I am from the family of the farm of mad people,’” said Ahmed, who spoke on condition that only his first name be used, over fear of retaliation.

Levi denied the incident.

The few Palestinians who have refused to leave the area around Levi’s farm say their land has shrunk by 95% since he established Meitarim, crippling them economically.

Dror Etkes, an anti-occupation researcher, said there’s been a total collapse of rule of law in the territory, with the Israeli government defending settlers.

Etkes said land controlled by Levi has nearly doubled since the war, from about 1,000 (400 hectares) to 2,000 acres (800 hectares).

CALLS FOR MORE

Local rights groups hope sanctions will be extended to Israeli government officials who they say embolden settler activity.

That would send a stronger signal of Washington’s condemnation, said Delaney Simon, of the International Crisis Group.

“Sanctions against government officials have cast a chilling effect in other countries, causing firms to shy away from doing business in those places,” she said.

Smotrich, who lives in the Kedumim settlement and was given special powers over settlement policies as part of the governing coalition agreement, told Israeli media in April that he’d take steps to help sanctioned settlers.

Levi’s father-in-law, Federman, told AP that he spoke to Smotrich directly.

“He said he will take care of it, and if necessary he will even make a law against interference of other countries,” Federman said. Shortly after, he added, his son-in-law’s account was unfrozen.

Smotrich said in a text-message statement that sanctions are “a grave mistake by the Biden administration.” He didn’t address questions about whether he intervened directly to unfreeze settlers’ accounts. But he said the government is working with “our friends in the U.S.” to cancel or reduce sanctions.

During a U.S. congressional subcommittee meeting Tuesday with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Sen. Chris Van Hollen urged sanctions against Smotrich.

“This is in direct contradiction of U.S. policy,” he said.

By SAM MEDNICK and JULIA FRANKEL
Associated Press

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