Can US visa bans deter West Bank violence by Israeli settlers?

Just two months after introducing visa-free entry for Israel, the United States is restricting Israeli settlers from travelling to the US if they are known to be engaging in violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

On Tuesday, the US Department of State announced that it has started implementing visa restrictions on “individuals believed to have been involved in undermining peace, security or stability in the West Bank“.

Hours after the announcement, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said at a news conference: “There is, sadly, violence from extremists that we must condemn,” while many American officials have called on Israel to implement stricter measures against such incidents.

Although some consider the visa ban a positive step, others have argued that it falls far short of what the US can actually do to rein in Israeli violence. Observers have also raised concerns over a loophole in the policy that lets American-Israeli dual nationals get off scot-free if they perpetrate violence.

Here’s what to know about the ban and its impact:

What does the US settler visa ban stipulate?

The details of the ban have not been made clear, but the first ones were imposed on Tuesday.

Israeli citizens who meet the criteria for the ban and have US visas will be notified of their nullification. Those who do not already have a visa and apply for one will have their application rejected. Although it is not the focus of the policy, Palestinians who are found to have committed violent acts will also face the same repercussions.

Blacklisted settlers will also be ineligible for the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, a visa waiver US President Joe Biden introduced for Israelis in September.

Why is the US restricting settler visas?

The US has said the move is an extension of its continued opposition to settler violence after pushing Israel “to do more to hold accountable extremist settlers who have committed violent attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank”.

Since October 7, Biden and other US officials have repeatedly warned Israel to stop settler violence in the region. Such cases usually involve direct harm to Palestinians, including casualties, as well as damage to their properties.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said that during last week’s trip to Israel, he made it clear that the US “is ready to take action using our own authorities”, according to a White House press statement.

US officials, including Blinken and State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller, said Washington’s measures should not keep Israel from taking its own actions and the US is continuing to engage with Israeli officials on protecting Palestinians from such attacks.

Many of Israel’s far-right politicians, however, have signalled support for settler activities, and accountability of such events is rare and often overseen by the Israeli military. Miller said that although Israel has put some perpetrators in administrative detention, they must also be prosecuted.

Israel’s government has also enabled attacks through stepped up access to gun licenses. In July, Ben-Gvir announced that Israeli police would no longer confiscate weapons of Israeli settlers who shoot Palestinians.

Additionally, the expansion of settlements hurts progress towards peace and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian  conflict, experts said. In phone calls with world leaders since October 7, Biden and Blinken have reiterated their commitment towards establishing the two-state solution for Israel and Palestine.

How many people could be affected?

It is unclear how many people the ban would cover, but since the October 7 Hamas attacks in southern Israel, an average of seven cases a day of settler violence against Palestinians have been reported in the West Bank, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Before October 7, there were an average of three cases a day in 2023.

The ban may also apply to immediate family members of settlers who engage in violence.

Miller said it would affect “dozens” of settlers and their families although he did not give a more accurate number or identify anyone the ban would target due to confidentiality rules.

Israeli settlers who have American passports and do not need US visas will not be affected by the ban. Estimates suggested that at least 200,000 Israeli-American dual nationals live in Israel.

Overall, Israel has more than 700,000 settlers spread across 150 government-authorised settlements and 128 unauthorised outposts around the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

In 2015, an Oxford University professor’s research showed that 60,000 of the Israeli settlers in the West Bank also held US passports. It is unclear how much that number has changed over the past eight years.

Since Israel occupied the West Bank in the 1967 Six-Day War, Israelis have built settlements that most countries deem illegal. Israel rejects such characterisations on the grounds that it has historical ties to the land.

How significant is the ban?

The ban has received mixed responses since its implementation, with some considering it a step forward and other describing it as “hollow”.

The policy has been labelled a move towards establishing peace and security in the West Bank during an escalating war in Gaza.

The US has been a staunch supporter of Israel’s war on the enclave, but the punitive move points to US policy being at odds with Israeli government measures.

“It’s an important signal that the administration is taking this issue more seriously,” Adam Shapiro, director of advocacy for Israel-Palestine at Democracy for the Arab World Now, told Al Jazeera.

He added that behind the scenes, the Biden administration is looking at additional sanctions. The US has been under pressure to take stronger measures against Israel, particularly by calling for a ceasefire.

“This action is largely meaningless and symbolic” but an opportunity to push for more concrete action, especially against settler projects in general, Shapiro said.

Are any other countries imposing such bans?

Several European countries have also been raising the possibility of sanctions on Israeli settlers in recent weeks.

The European Union is reviewing a proposal on such sanctions, the Reuters news agency reported.

In November, France also said the EU should consider such measures, citing rising attacks in the West Bank and deteriorating “prospects for a two state-solution?.

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