by Ramisa Rob
In a rare move, Biden dropped “unprecedented sanctions” (according to Western media) on Israeli settlers in Occupied Palestine on February 1. Biden’s executive order named four Israeli settlers who will immediately be subjected to the sanctions, which imposes financial and travel restrictions to address “extremist settler violence, forced displacement of people and villages, and property destruction.” These sanctions, if enforced firmly, can also break the transactional network that perpetuates settler violence, and even limit US groups and individuals who have been financing extremist settlements. At the end of the day, the sanctions’ effectiveness to protect Palestinians in the West Bank will depend on enforcement from US lawmakers, and that aspect remains to be seen.
As a gesture on the foreign policy front, this is unprecedented because the US has irrevocably supported Benjamin Netanyahu, doing away with all the values that the nation purportedly champions, from freedom of speech to human rights. But the timing and nature of the sanctions are too transparent to not betray the real intentions behind them. The US president signed the sanctions ahead of his presidential rally in Michigan—a key swing state with the largest Arab-American population in the nation, where Trump is grabbing the lead now. Four years ago, Biden beat Trump in Michigan by a thin margin of three percent. Biden’s support within the Arab-American community has plummeted since October 7, with recent polls marking the first time in 26 years that the majority of Arab-Americans did not claim to prefer the Democrat party. Another recent poll by the American Arab Institute and Rainbow PUSH Coalition of 1,000 citizens found that US citizens are more inclined to support a member of Congress calling for a ceasefire. Biden aides are reportedly fearful that his support for Israel may hurt his re-election prospects, and his campaigning rallies are being routinely interrupted by pro-Palestinian protests.
The recent series of events need to be mentioned as well to make sense of the surprise sanctions. On January 26, the ICJ ordered Israel to prevent acts of genocide in the case brought by South Africa—which went against Biden and Blinken’s claim that the case was “meritless.” In December, CNN found that US intelligence knew that the munitions Israel is using in Gaza risk high civilian casualties. South Africa’s lawyers pointed to these exact munitions as evidence to prove genocide—not to mention that some have also been supplied by the Biden Administration, bypassing Congress. The ICJ order has an implication—even if an inactionable one for now—suggesting President Joe Biden’s complicity in plausible genocide on the international stage. Yet, even after what should’ve been an embarrassing moment, Biden went on to show further blind support for Israel.
Israel surfaced allegations that at least 12 UNRWA workers were affiliated with the October 7 Hamas attacks—coincidentally on the same day as the ruling. (UNRWA is the mainstay of humanitarian aid in Occupied Palestine) The US—the agency’s largest donor—cut off aid despite UN officials warning that the funding cut will make famine inevitable in Gaza; as many as 800,000 residents were already at grave risk of dying from starvation and thirst before the UNRWA controversy. The aid cut was met with criticism from prominent Democrats—including Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—whose supporters’ votes Biden will be needing soon.
Interestingly, Biden also imposed the sanctions on Thursday, the day after a US federal court ruling found—in accordance with the ICJ—that it is “plausible that Israel’s conduct amounts to genocide,” and implored his administration to “examine the results of their unflagging support of the military siege against Palestinians.” The court dismissed the lawsuit—filed by various humanitarian groups, including the Defense for Children Palestine, accusing Biden of being complicit in genocide in Gaza—on grounds of jurisdiction. In the legal landscape, the dismissal was expected; the case is better suited for the executive branch of government and the preferred outcome is inaccessible for the federal court in California. The granular separation of powers in the US legislature ensured against any indictment of the Biden Administration. But the catch here is that the evidence presented by the plaintiffs was enough for the judge to serve the administration with critical statements. The findings do not legally absolve the Biden Administration from abetting genocide.
The events that transpired, coupled with Biden’s nosediving position in polls, point to increasing pressure on the incumbent US president to send a different signal on the Israel issue—an indication that the diplomatic lip service regarding the importance of creating a Palestinian state has a sliver of integrity to it. The motives behind the sanctions, however, lack that very integrity. Let’s be clear: we are talking about the same president who worried that foreign journalists having access to Gaza would reveal the devastating truth of what he knows is going on in Gaza. This is the same president who talks about abortion rights at rallies to return to power, just after slashing aid to Palestine—knowing that the hospital system in Gaza has crashed and thousands of pregnant women are undergoing C-sections without anaesthesia. There is no reason to believe that Joe Biden and his administration cares about the Palestinian people, or for a Palestinian state, over the American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobby’s influence.
The “historic” sanctions present no reason to believe that the US is turning on Israel. It is not. The US will still refrain from calling a ceasefire in Gaza, knowing that each day they let this go on, more innocents will be killed. The US can sanction the Israeli Defense Forces, or the soldiers who are dropping deadly bombs on civilian neighbourhoods, or the government officials who are making the decision to murder thousands of people. But instead, the US continues to supply weapons that will kill children in Gaza. Although Biden could even reverse the aid cut to the UNRWA, he will not. At the dawn of a rally, settler violence in the West Bank suddenly seemed “intolerable” to the Biden Administration. The severity of the problem could have been recognised years back—but it was not, by choice.
It is true that settler violence has mushroomed to disturbing levels in the West Bank since October 7 and needs to be addressed. But Israel’s inhumane military operations in Gaza are the root of the problem right now. Over 26,000 civilians have been killed, and thousands are missing under the rubble. So what’s the point of sanctioning the sideshow while actively aiding the main show to go on? Biden can address the immediate crisis in Gaza, but he has chosen to take punitive steps in the West Bank, pursuing a cop-out instead of a real solution.
To applaud this bare minimum of an action as an “important step” holds the United States to the lowest humanitarian standards. Praising the US for this step is contentment on the ground that something is better than nothing, when it’s not. Praising Biden for taking some action finally is fundamentally disrespectful to all the people in both Gaza and the West Bank who have been killed and those who are suffering because of his utter failure to put pressure on Netanyahu and call a ceasefire. The sanctions signify nothing but insincere optics of false solidarity with Palestinians, and they are also unlikely to reach their main aim: to sway Arab-American voters and young Democrat voters who want a ceasefire. There’s too much horror that people have seen in Gaza for Biden and the Democrats to get away with a convenient cop-out this time.
Author is a journalist.