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EU sanctions extremist Israeli settlers over violence in the West Bank

Smoke fills the sky after Israeli settlers set fire to the properties of Palestinian villagers in the West Bank village of al-Mughayyir, Saturday, April 13, 2024.
Smoke fills the sky after Israeli settlers set fire to the properties of Palestinian villagers in the West Bank village of al-Mughayyir, Saturday, April 13, 2024. Copyright Nasser Nasser/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Nasser Nasser/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved
By Mared Gwyn Jones
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The European Union has moved to sanction a handful of Israeli settlers responsible for attacks on Palestinian communities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, following months of deliberations.

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A political agreement on the move emerged among the bloc's 27 member countries last month, but technical work has delayed its implementation, prompting many countries - such as France and Belgium - to unilaterally impose national sanctions. 

Some 490,000 Israelis live in settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, which are considered a breach of international law. Attacks on Palestinians in the occupied territory have surged since the outbreak of the war between Israel and Hamas last October, causing around 460 deaths, according to the Palestinian health ministry. 

Four individuals and two entities responsible for settler violence will as of Friday be blacklisted under the EU's human rights sanctions regime, meaning they will be banned from travelling to the bloc and their financial assets frozen.

The sanctioned entities are Lehava, a far-wing Jewish supremacist organisation, and Hilltop Youth, whose activities were recently halted by the Israeli Defense Forces for multiple incidents of violence and abuses against Palestinian civilians.

Two leading figures of Hilltop Youth, Meir Ettinger and Elisha Yered, are also targeted.

The move comes amid escalating violence in the West Bank, where tensions have deepened since a 14-year-old boy from a settler family was killed last Saturday.

NGO Human Rights Watch says Israeli settlers are displacing Palestinian communities by destroying their homes, and are responsible for assaults, torture and sexual violence against Palestinians.

The EU's high representative for foreign policy, Josep Borrell, has previously said that settler violence is one of the biggest obstacles to future peace in the region since settlers oppose the two-state solution which would give statehood to Palestinians.

The bloc has also repeatedly censured Benjamin Netanyahu's government for backing projects aimed at expanding settlements in the West Bank and areas around Jerusalem, and called for such decisions to be reversed. 

In January, several members of the Israeli government joined a far-right conference promoting the construction of Jewish settlements in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

The formal approval of the sanctions also comes as the bloc carefully calibrates its stance on the Middle East conflict following a rapid escalation in tensions between Israel and Iran. 

Since Iran launched an unprecedented aerial attack on Israeli territory last Saturday, EU leaders have doubled down on their stance of solidarity with Israel but also urged Netanyahu's cabinet to exercise restraint.

Some capitals, however, want Brussels to toughen its stance on Netanyahu. Spain and Ireland have led calls to review the bloc's trade deal with Israel - the Association Agreement - to exert pressure on its government to exercise restraint in its Gaza offensive.

On Friday, Belgium's deputy prime minister Petra De Sutter claimed Belgium would "take the lead" to "re-evaluate" the EU-Israel Association Agreement.

"We call for an EU-wide import duty on products coming from illegal Israeli settlements," De Sutter said.

A note drafted by the EEAS - the EU's diplomatic arm - last December urged the EU to "enforce continued, full and effective implementation of existing EU legislation and bilateral arrangements applicable to settlements products."

Under EU legislation, Israeli products made by settlers should be clearly labelled as such and subject to less preferential customs arrangements, but the rules are not strictly enforced.

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