Meet the settlers targeted by Biden’s sanctions — and their victims

Palestinians and Israelis who’ve experienced the settlers’ attacks first-hand see the move as a positive but wholly insufficient step toward accountability.

Oren Ziv, +972, February 8, 2024

Einan Tanjil (left) and another settler attack Palestinian farmers and Israeli activists in Surif, occupied West Bank. (Shay Kendler)
Einan Tanjil (left) and another settler attack Palestinian farmers and Israeli activists in Surif, occupied West Bank, Nov. 12, 2021. (Shay Kendler)

 
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After years of toothless verbal condemnation of Israeli settler violence by successive U.S. governments, the Biden administration took the historic step last week of imposing sanctions against four settlers involved in recent attacks in the occupied West Bank. The executive order includes freezing the settlers’ assets in the United States and banning their entry into the country. Israeli banks have also frozen the accounts of two of the settlers on the list in compliance with the U.S. sanctions.

Settler violence has been on the rise for years, with perpetrators very often supported in the act by Israeli soldiers and enjoying near-total impunity in the Israeli justice system. The inauguration of the most far-right government in Israel’s history just over a year ago — with a man once arrested on suspicion of planning an attack becoming overlord of the West Bank, and a man once convicted of support for terrorism becoming national security minister — has further emboldened violent settlers: 2023 saw a sharp escalation in large-scale pogroms, including in Huwara, Al-Lubban ash-Sharqiya, Turmus Ayya, and many other locations.

These attacks are succeeding in their state-sanctioned goal of cleansing vast regions of the West Bank of their Palestinian inhabitants to enable the further expansion of Jewish settlements. And the situation has deteriorated even further under the shadow of war, with settlers forcibly displacing at least 16 entire Palestinian villages since October 7.

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To try to assess the significance of Biden’s decision, +972 Magazine and Local Call spoke with Palestinians and Israelis who have been directly impacted by the violence of the targeted settlers — David Chai Chasdai, Shalom Zicherman, Einan Tanjil, and Yinon Levi — and their comrades in arms. Most welcomed the executive order but wondered whether it would have any effect on the ground; whether it would deter other settlers; whether sanctions would be extended to other settlers involved in the violence; and whether such sanctions would ultimately reach the leadership of the settlement movement, including those sitting in government.

‘These are organized groups that come to kill’

David Chai Chasdai was arrested for leading one of the worst instances of settler violence in recent memory: the pogrom in the Palestinian town of Huwara in February 2023, during which hundreds of settlers set fire to dozens of homes and hundreds of vehicles, wounding over 100 residents in the process. Sameh Aqtash, from the nearby village of Za’atara, was shot and killed during the attack.

Israeli settlers burn Palestinian homes, vehicles, and businesses during a rampage in the West Bank town of Huwara, Feb. 26, 2023. (Activestills)
Israeli settlers burn Palestinian homes, vehicles, and businesses during a rampage in the West Bank town of Huwara, Feb. 26, 2023. (Activestills)

Chasdai, who lives in the settlement of Beit El, is a familiar figure in the world of the “hilltop youth” — the generic term given to young Israeli settlers who routinely descend from illegal West Bank outposts to attack Palestinians. In 2014, then a teenager, he was described in the settler news outlet Makor Rishon as “the number one target of the Nationalist Crimes Division in the Judea and Samaria [police] district and one of the names that causes the greatest headaches for members of the Jewish Unit of the Shin Bet.”

In 2015, Chasdai was convicted of intent to unlawfully use hazardous materials after bottles filled with gasoline and other flammable substances were found in his car. Two years later, he was convicted of aggravated assault for attacking a Palestinian taxi driver with tear gas. In 2021, he was convicted of threatening a police officer.

Chasdai was one of only 18 settlers arrested after the Huwara pogrom (only one of whom was charged). He was soon released but then re-arrested and placed into three months of administrative detention — a tool Israel uses almost exclusively against Palestinians to detain whomever it wants without charge or trial. 50 Knesset members signed a call for his release.

“It’s a symbolic measure,” a resident of Huwara from the Awwad family, who asked that his first name not be published for fear of settler reprisal, told +972. “America says, ‘We also watch what’s going on in the [occupied] territories. It helps a little that the Israeli government knows that the Palestinians have good relations with the U.S. and are giving them material about what the settlers are doing.”

Awwad believes that although the sanctions are a good start, they are not nearly enough to deter settler violence. “It’s not just Huwara — it’s everywhere in the West Bank,” he said. “Settlers walking around in military uniforms and with weapons. These are not people who just shoot and run. These are organized groups that come to kill, and America should declare them terrorist organizations. They are part of the right [wing], and the right wing is responsible for them: it gives them orders, gives them lawyers and money, and supports their criminal behavior.”

Palestinian residents of Huwara walk among their burned homes, cars, and businesses the morning after Israeli settlers rampaged through their town in the West Bank, Feb. 27, 2023. (Oren Ziv)
Palestinian residents of Huwara walk among their burned homes, cars, and businesses the morning after Israeli settlers rampaged through their town in the West Bank, Feb. 27, 2023. (Oren Ziv)

Awwad also questions the effectiveness of this initial package of sanctions, as these settlers likely do not regularly — if ever — travel to the United States, and they almost certainly do not have American bank accounts. “We need the sanctions to be here,” he says. “The ones who need to act against the settlers are the government and the law enforcement authorities in Israel. Only if this happens will they begin to be afraid.

“The problem is that the government here doesn’t want to act against them,” Awwad continued. “The settlers are part of the government, so the government doesn’t want to deal with them because they’re afraid that the coalition will fall.”

Chasdai himself responded to the freezing of his bank accounts, telling Israel’s public broadcaster Kan that it was a “national disgrace,” all the more so because it took place under a right-wing government. “Throughout the generations we have seen many oppressors who have harmed the people of Israel,” Chasdai said. “We will also get through the persecution of Biden and his collaborators.”

‘It’s convenient to blame the small fish’

Another settler on Biden’s list is Shalom Zicherman, a resident of the Mitzpe Yair outpost. In June 2022, he threw stones through the window of a car belonging to left-wing Israeli activists. I was present at the scene and documented the attack, after which Zicherman was able to return to the outpost, despite the fact that the army’s Judea Area Brigade Commander Col. Yehuda Rosilio saw the attack and did nothing to stop or detain him. The IDF Spokesperson initially described the incident as “friction between settlers and protesters,” but Zicherman was later indicted, and his trial is ongoing.

The U.S. State Department notes that “according to video evidence, [Zicherman] assaulted Israeli activists and their vehicles in the West Bank, blocking them on the street, and attempted to break the windows of passing vehicles with activists inside. Zicherman cornered at least two of the activists and injured both.”

An Israeli settler throws a stone at the window of a car containing three left-wing Israeli activists, as another settler blocks their exit, outside the Mitzpe Yair outpost, occupied West Bank, June 10, 2022. (Oren Ziv)
Israeli settler Shalom Zicherman throws a stone at the window of a car containing three left-wing Israeli activists, as another settler blocks their exit, outside the Mitzpe Yair outpost, occupied West Bank, June 10, 2022. (Oren Ziv)

According to the order, Zicherman and another settler “directly or indirectly engaged or attempted to engage in planning, ordering, otherwise directing, or participating in efforts to place civilians in reasonable fear of violence with the purpose or effect of necessitating a change of residence to avoid such violence, affecting the West Bank.”

Yasmin Eran Vardi, a left-wing activist who spends most of her time in the West Bank doing “protect presence” solidarity work — whereby Israeli and international activists put their bodies in between Palestinians on the one hand and settlers and soldiers on the other — was wounded in the attack. “I’m in favor of sanctions being imposed, but these sanctions don’t mean a lot,” she told +972. “It’s clear that these four [settlers] did bad things, but there is a whole policy here that allows them to do whatever they want, under the auspices of the army and the government, all with American funding.”

Like Awwad, Eran Vardi wondered whether these sanctions would effectively deter other settlers, or whether they would even deter the four who were themselves sanctioned. “The question is whether anything will change, even a little,” she said.

Eran Vardi wants to see more significant sanctions, but she has no expectation that the U.S. will impose them. “These sanctions demonstrate Biden’s full cooperation with Israel’s needs,” she said. “It’s convenient to blame the small fish, especially because [the settlers] hurt Israeli citizens. Biden could stop funding the killing in Gaza if he wanted to.”

‘Why focus specifically on those who harmed Israelis?’

Einan Tanjil, a third settler named in Biden’s executive order, was documented in November 2021 attacking Palestinian farmers and Israeli activists who came to harvest olives in the village of Surif. The order states that Tanjil “was involved in assaulting Palestinian farmers and Israeli activists by attacking them with stones and clubs, resulting in wounds that required medical treatment.”

Israeli settlers assaulting Palestinian residents and solidarity activists during an attack on an olive harvest in the town of Surif, South Hebron Hills, occupied West Bank, Nov. 12, 2021. (Shay Kendler)
Israeli settlers assaulting Palestinian residents and solidarity activists during an attack on an olive harvest in the town of Surif, South Hebron Hills, occupied West Bank, Nov. 12, 2021. (Shay Kendler)

+972 and Local Call reported at the time that masked settlers descended from nearby outposts and, using stones and clubs, wounded at least three Israeli activists who subsequently needed medical treatment, including the veteran activist Rabbi Arik Asherman. Tanjil was charged with assault and causing bodily harm.

Netta Ben Porat, an Israeli human rights activist, was wounded during the incident. “There were eight of us Israelis,” she recounted. “Einan and his friend attacked us with clubs, and another activist stood between me and them, and then he beat me.

“He was only charged with assault, not even aggravated assault or politically-driven assault [which would carry a more severe punishment],” Ben Porat continued. “They omitted that he attacked more people. The indictment does not clarify why he attacked us. He claimed self-defense, even though I was standing to the side and filming while he hit me.”

To Ben Porat, the sanctions appear “ridiculous.” “Out of all [the settlers], the one the U.S. imposes sanctions on is a 19-year-old who attacked Israelis once or twice? It’s irrelevant,” she said. “They could have tried a little harder — what about the military security coordinator who was armed and who brought the settlers [to where we were] and watched from above [as they attacked us]? Or the farmers responsible for expelling entire communities? If the problem is settler violence and its impact on Palestinians, then why focus specifically on those who harmed Israelis?

“Maybe this is a harbinger of things to come,” she continued. “I hope this is a first step, that sanctions will be imposed on [Bezalel] Smotrich and [prominent settler leader] Yossi Dagan.”

‘We hope this will help us return to our lands’

The final settler targeted by the sanctions is Yinon Levi, who helped found the Meitarim Farm outpost. According to Kerem Navot, an NGO that tracks the dispossession of Palestinian land, Levi owns an earthworks company that has been hired by state authorities to carry out demolition orders in Palestinian villages in the West Bank.

Last November, violence emanating from Meitarim Farm led to the expulsion of the Palestinian community of Khirbet Zanuta — 27 families, totalling around 250 people — from their homes near the Meitar checkpoint in the southern West Bank. At the beginning of the war, Levi’s company also blocked roads leading to the entrance of the Palestinian village of Susiya — an apparent attempt to intimidate the village residents.

Palestinian residents of Khirbet Zanuta pack their belongings and house materials as they flee their homes following a spike in Israeli settler violence during the Gaza war, West Bank, November 1, 2023. (Oren Ziv)
Palestinian residents of Khirbet Zanuta pack their belongings and house materials as they flee their homes following a spike in Israeli settler violence during the Gaza war, West Bank, November 1, 2023. (Oren Ziv)

A petition filed on behalf of the Palestinians expelled from Zanuta states that Levi headed a group of settlers who, accompanied by two soldiers, came to the village on Oct. 12, beat village residents, threatened to kill them, smashed solar panels, and destroyed a car. According to the petition, Levi drove a bulldozer and “began extensive and massive demolitions of buildings, infrastructure, olive trees, and other agricultural crops belonging to the villagers.”

Levi differs slightly from the other three settlers on the American list in that he is not merely a hilltop youth activist, but rather the leader of a settler farm. In recent years, dozens of such farms have been established in the West Bank, and they are at the heart of the effort to expel Palestinians from their land. Although most of them were not established legally, they receive government support and protection from the military.

“I didn’t believe this would happen,” Fayez al-Tal, the leader of Khirbet Zanuta, told +972 in response to the announcement of sanctions against Levi. “We read the decision and were overjoyed. Yinon Levi is in charge of the outpost: he is one of the people who came at the beginning of the war and threatened us. We hope this will help us in our lawsuit requesting to return to our lands, and we hope that the court will see that the Americans are imposing sanctions. But Israel is not doing anything.”

According to al-Tal, it is important to remember the broader context of settler violence: “The settlers don’t do it alone. They serve the government, and the police do nothing when they attack us. They know that no law applies to them. They are not afraid of anything. The Americans can’t say a word about Gaza, because Hamas is there — but there is no Hamas here, so they can ask why there are violent attacks by settlers.”

Like other interviewees, al-Tal hopes that the order will later be extended to other settlers, including Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, and that “the U.S. Consulate and Embassy will pressure the Civil Administration or the police to prevent the attacks and bring us back to our land.”

+972 and Local Call contacted Chasdai’s lawyer, but he did not respond. We also contacted Levi, but he didn’t respond. Levi told other media outlets that the accusations leveled against him are “false.” Tanjil’s lawyer referred us to the Honenu legal organization, which said that it does not represent him on the issue of U.S. sanctions. Zicherman could not be reached for comment.

A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

Oren Ziv

Oren Ziv is a photojournalist, reporter for Local Call, and a founding member of the Activestills photography collective.


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