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West Bank: EU could sanction violent Israeli settlers

Ella Joyner in Brussels
December 12, 2023

The European Union is concerned over a rise in violence by Jewish settlers on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. Here's what potential sanctions on individuals known for "violent activities" could mean.

Israeli settlers setting up tents in the occupied West Bank scuffle with Palestinians
UN officials have voiced concern about mounting violence toward Palestinians in the occupied West BankImage: Mamoun Wazwaz/APA Images/ZUMAPRESS/picture alliance

The European Union will draw up proposals to sanction Israeli settlers perpetrating violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank in line with a recent initiative in the United States, the bloc's top diplomat said on Monday.

"I believe the time has come to swap words for action […] to take the measures that we can take with regard to acts of violence against Palestinian people in the West Bank," the EU's high representative for foreign affairs, Josep Borrell, told reporters after a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels.

The West Bank is one of two Palestinian territories, along with the Gaza Strip. It has been under military occupation by Israel since the end of the Six-Day War in 1967.

Violence has surged there ever since the October 7 terror attacks by the militant Palestinian group Hamas in southern Israel that killed 1,200 people. The retaliatory Israeli military campaign has now killed more than 18,000 people in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry.

Palestinians at a demnstration in Ramallah after the bombing of Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza
The West Bank is controlled in part by the Palestinian Authority, but the governing body has lost legitimacy in the eyes of many PalestiniansImage: Issam Rimawi/Anadolu/picture alliance

The Islamist group Hamas controls Gaza and is deemed a terrorist organization by the US, the EU and others.

While the world's gaze has largely been trained on the humanitarian situation in Gaza, hundreds of Palestinians have also been killed in the West Bank and east Jerusalem in the past two months, according to the UN.

What's happening in the West Bank right now?

Nongovernmental organizations and UN agencies have warned for weeks of spiraling violence, but even before the war in Gaza, this year had already been a bloody one.

Data from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs shows 28 Israelis have been killed in clashes in the West Bank between January and the end of November this year, most of them Jewish settlers.

On Sunday, the UN humanitarian coordinator for the occupied Palestinian territories, Lynn Hastings, said 2023 had seen "unprecedented levels of Israeli state and settler violence against Palestinians" in the West Bank, including east Jerusalem.

How the Israel-Hamas war affects West Bank farmers

Of the 464 Palestinians killed in the West Bank this year, 265 were killed since October 7, Hastings noted in a written statement. "At least three killed were disabled," she wrote, "and at least 1,000 people have been forcibly displaced from their land citing settler violence and the inability to access their land."

What could the EU do?

Borrell said EU officials were now working together with member states to draw up a list of individuals known for "violent activities and their attacks against the Palestinians in the West Bank." He also condemned the Israeli government for approving the construction of new housing units in Jerusalem, which he said contradicted international law.

On Monday, Borrell said the necessary unanimity among all EU states for sanctions had yet to be established since there was not yet an official proposal for states to review.

A number of EU states have already expressed support for sanctioning violent settlers in recent days, including France and even Germany, one of Israel's closest backers in the EU since October 7.

In a letter dated Friday and addressed to European Council President Charles Michel, the governments of Belgium, Ireland, Malta and Spain proposed imposing travel bans and asset freezes on "violent settlers who are attacking and displacing Palestinian communities."

West Bank: Palestinians live in fear of violent displacement

"We must avoid escalation in the West Bank," the four states urged in the text, seen by DW.

Borrell also confirmed that further sanctions against Hamas were also being discussed. 

How and why did the US sanction settlers?

Last week, the US announced it would impose travel bans on "dozens" of individuals and possibly also their family members.

"The United States will pursue visa restrictions against individuals involved in or meaningfully contributing to the undermining of peace, security, or stability in the West Bank," US state department spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters last Tuesday. The measure could apply to either Israelis or Palestinians, he noted.

Even Israel's close allies in the US and the EU have condemned West Bank settlements. They are seen as counterproductive to a permanent two-state solution.

"The construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and in east Jerusalem is increasingly jeopardizing the territorial basis for a future Palestinian state," according to a 2020 assessment by the German government.

What is the West Bank and how many Israeli settlers are living there?

Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, though parts of it are governed by the Palestinian Authority. The overwhelming majority of the international community never recognized Israeli claims over the territory, but Israelis started building settlements there in the 1970s and 80s.

Settlements in the occupied West Bank are classified by the International Court of Justice and the United Nations as illegal under international law.

Israel has always disputed that the practice is against international law, and the current right-wing coalition government has even vowed to step up the settlement of the West Bank.

As of 2021, there were 465,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank, which has an overall population of more than 3 million, according to figures compiled by the Israeli nongovernmental organization Peace Now. The West Bank is now 86% Palestinian and 14% Israeli. Settlers, including at least 230,000 in east Jerusalem, make up around 7.5% of the total Israeli population.

Some Israelis claim settlements are necessary for security reasons or to assert historic rights to the land.

Edited by: Ruairi Casey / Rob Turner