LONDON: In a rare punitive move against Israel, the US State Department said Tuesday it will impose travel bans on extremist Jewish settlers implicated in a rash of recent attacks on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
"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," it said in a statement by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Blinken announced the step after repeatedly warning Israel last week that President Joe Biden's administration would be taking action over the attacks. Blinken did not announce individual visa bans, but officials said those would be coming this week and could affect dozens of settlers and their families.
"Immediate family members of such persons also may be subject to these restrictions," Blinken said, however, the statement did not identify any individuals facing visa bans, or say how many would be targeted.
The decision comes at a sensitive moment in U.S.-Israeli relations. The Biden administration has firmly backed Israel since an attack by Hamas on Oct. 7, even as international criticism of Israel has mounted.
But in recent weeks, the administration has stepped up calls on Israel to do more to limit civilian casualties as the Israelis expand their offensive and target densely populated southern Gaza.
Daily settler attacks have more than doubled, U.N. figures show, since Hamas, which controls the separate Palestinian enclave of Gaza, killed 1,200 Israelis and took about 240 hostage. Israel has since bombed and invaded Gaza, killing more than 16,000 people.
"The United States has consistently opposed actions that undermine stability in the West Bank, including attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians, and Palestinian attacks against Israelis," Blinken said.
"We have 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," he added. "As President Biden has repeatedly said, those attacks are unacceptable. Last week in Israel, I made clear that the United States is ready to take action using our own authorities."
During meetings in Israel last week, Blinken told officials Washington was "ready to take action using our own authorities," he said.
Blinken said Washington would "continue to seek accountability for all acts of violence against civilians in the West Bank, regardless of the perpetrator or the victim," and would "continue to engage with the Israeli leadership to make clear that Israel must take additional measures to protect Palestinian civilians from extremist attacks."
He also called on the "Palestinian Authority to make clear it must do more to curb Palestinian attacks against Israelis.
"Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority have the responsibility to uphold stability in the West Bank," Blinken said, adding: "Instability in the West Bank both harms the Israeli and Palestinian people and threatens Israel’s national security interests. Those responsible for it must be held accountable."
Tuesday's move comes just a month after Israel was granted entry into the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, which allows its citizens visa-free entry into the U.S. Those targeted by the action will not be eligible for the program, and those who hold current U.S. visas will have them revoked.
(With AP and Reuters)