As U.S., U.K. and EU sanction violent Israeli settlers, Canada hangs back

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The Trudeau government still won’t say if it’s considering imposing sanctions on violent Israeli settlers in the wake of travel bans announced by both the U.S. and the United Kingdom in recent days.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said last week that he will recommend EU sanctions as well. 

Canada, like its American, British and European allies, has called on Israel to restrain extremist Jewish settlers who have brought new levels of fear and violence to the West Bank under the year-old government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s cabinet includes some of Israel’s most radical settler leaders in its top posts.

On Friday, Canada co-signed a joint EU-U.K.-Australia statement saying that Israel’s failure to restrain or prosecute Jewish extremists has created  “an environment of near-complete impunity” for settlers engaging in acts of violence.

But a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada (GAC) wouldn’t say whether the federal government is considering taking action against violent settlers itself.

“Canada is judicious in its approach to imposing sanctions and is committed to their effective and coordinated use when appropriate,” GAC spokesperson Grantly Franklin told CBC News. “To that end, Canada has established a rigorous due diligence process to consider and evaluate circumstances that may warrant the use of sanctions.”

‘Targeting and killing Palestinian civilians’

“We are banning those responsible for settler violence from entering the U.K.,” wrote U.K. Foreign Minister (and former prime minister) David Cameron on X on Thursday. “Extremist settlers, by targeting and killing Palestinian civilians, are undermining security and stability for both Israelis and Palestinians.”

U.S. President Joe Biden has warned Israel repeatedly it has to act against Jewish settlers who began escalating their attacks on Palestinian civilians well before October 7.

“Pouring gasoline on fire is what it’s like,” Biden said on October 25. “They’re attacking Palestinians in places that they’re entitled to be, and it has to stop. They have to be held accountable.”

U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told a media briefing the Netanyahu government had chosen not to act.

“The White House has made public that the president has raised that directly with Prime Minister Netanyahu in their conversations,” Miller said. “[U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken] has raised it as recently as last Thursday when we were in Israel.

“And in all those conversations, we made clear that while we expected the Government of Israel to take action, the United States was ready and willing to take our own action if we didn’t see them take actions.”

Miller added that in order to impose a visa ban on violent Israeli extremists, the U.S. is drawing up lists that would affect “dozens” of settlers, and possibly also their family members.

Masked Jewish settlers, top, clash with Palestinians in the West Bank village of Assira al-Kibliya on Sept. 20, 2011. (Nasser Ishtayeh/The Associated Press)

Immune from the U.S. visa ban will be tens of thousands of West Bank settlers who are U.S. citizens.

Last week, the Biden administration raised the pressure on Israel by stopping the transfer of more than 20,000 U.S.-made rifles to Israel’s national police, citing fears they would end up in the hands of settler extremists.

The minister who controls Israel’s police, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, comes from the most extreme wing of the West Bank settler movement and has a record of Israeli criminal convictions for, among other things, inciting hatred and supporting terrorism.

He has distributed thousands of rifles to members of the public, including settlers. On Monday, he pledged to keep distributing “as many weapons as possible to those who are eligible. No political campaign will deter me.”

Settlement building accelerates

Both the rate of new Israeli settlement building and the rate of forced removals of Palestinians in the West Bank have accelerated rapidly since Netanyahu returned to power with Ben Gvir as a governing partner in the closing days of 2022.

Even before October 7, 2023 was already the deadliest year for West Bank Palestinians in two decades. Since the Hamas massacre of that day, Israeli soldiers and settlers have killed 270 people in the West Bank, according to UN figures.

The West Bank Palestinian death toll for 2023 equals that of the previous seven years combined, and includes over a hundred children.

Injured people squat on the ground in an unfinished building, under guard.
Injured Israeli settlers are detained by Palestinian villagers in a building under construction near the West Bank village of Qusra, southeast of Nablus, on Jan. 7, 2014. (Nasser Ishtayeh/The Associated Press)

At least 22 Israelis have been killed by Palestinians in the West Bank in 2023, mostly in roadside shooting attacks.

IDF raids on Palestinian towns have killed by far the largest number of West Bank residents.

West Bank settlers have also seen an average of five attacks per day since October 7 that caused property damage, injuries or both, according to UN figures.

Typical attacks include arson against homes, cars and crops, the puncturing of water tanks, the destruction of olive trees or the killing of livestock. Firearms were used in about a third of the attacks.

Settlers drive hundreds from their homes

Israel’s Peace Now movement reported just three weeks into the current war in Gaza that settlers had seized the moment to expel 600 Palestinians from their West Bank homes.

Since then, they have removed about another 400.

“I think a visa ban against extremist violent settlers is actually a good idea as a means of putting some pressure or sending a message to the Netanyahu government that it has to take this problem more seriously than it has,” said Gabriella Goliger of Canadian Friends of Peace Now.

The great majority of settlers are not involved in the attacks, Goliger said, adding she hopes the bans will target only those who are.

“There are a lot of questions about exactly how (a travel ban) would be implemented and on whom it would be implemented,” she said. “But as a fairly symbolic measure, it’s a good idea. I would like to see these violent incidents against innocent Palestinian civilians stopped, and those who are committing them brought to justice.”

A young man holds up a cellphone showing a photo of himself injured.
Palestinian youth Tareq Zubeidi, 15, shows an image of his wounds at his house in the West Bank village of Silat ad-Dhahr on Aug. 31, 2021. Zubeidi says he was abducted and beaten by a group of Israeli settlers after they found him and his friends eating snacks near an evacuated hilltop settlement in the occupied West Bank. (Majdi Mohammed/Associated Press)

The Israeli embassy in Canada did not respond to CBC’s requests for comment.

Shimon Koffler Fogel, president of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), told CBC News in a written statement that “the U.K. travel ban on ‘extremist settlers’ feels like political theatre.”

“Most countries already have restrictions in place limiting entry for those with criminal records,” he wrote, “so it is therefore unclear whether this announcement is anything materially new and different.

“Unless Canada were to change its policies to prevent only those from specific regions and with a specific religion from entering the country, any such announcement would not be a shift from current practice.”

Washington and London have not suggested that their bans will be limited to settlers with Israeli criminal records — probably because few are ever charged or convicted.

Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din in December 2022 reported that only 3 per cent of Jewish settler attacks on Palestinian civilians resulted in convictions even before the current government came to power.

While Jews in the occupied territories are prosecuted in civilian courts, West Bank Palestinians are tried in Israeli military tribunals with a conviction rate of about 99 per cent.

Canada provides settlements with diplomatic cover

According to its official foreign policy, the federal government considers all Israeli settlements in the West Bank to be illegal, an obstacle to peace and “a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.”

In practice, however, the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has provided the Israeli settlement enterprise with diplomatic and legal cover. Since 2015, Canada has consistently voted against the annual UN motion that calls for the Fourth Geneva Convention to be upheld in the Occupied Territories and for settlement construction to cease.

The Trudeau government has also written to the International Criminal Court at The Hague saying that Canada, as one of the nations funding the court, wants it to reject all cases brought against Israel by Palestinians. The last of those letters was sent on February 14, 2020 in response to a request from Israeli PM Netanyahu.

In July this year, as Israeli settler violence reached a boiling point, the Trudeau government also wrote to the International Court of Justice pressing it to refuse to issue “an advisory opinion on Israeli practices in the occupied territories,” as requested by the UN General Assembly.

Canada’s lawyers told the court it should reject the case because Israel did not recognize its jurisdiction, and because “Canada is concerned that the issuance of an advisory opinion on Israeli practices in the occupied territories may contribute to a polarization of positions.”

The government also has allowed Israeli settlements to raise funds in Canada and claim Canadian tax refunds — an apparent contradiction of Canada Revenue Agency policy that states that “an organization is not charitable in law if its activities are contrary to public policy.”

And the Trudeau government overruled the Canadian Food Inspection Agency when it objected to the labelling of products made in the occupied West Bank as “Made in Israel.”

Settlers working with IDF

Even if Canada were to follow the U.S. and Britain in sanctioning individual settlers, said Michael Bueckert of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, that would do little to stop the larger settlement enterprise.

“Ultimately, it seems like it’s trying to shift responsibility onto a small group of individuals, whereas the primary responsibility for settler violence, according to all available evidence, rests with the Israeli government,” he said.

“Settler violence should be understood as a form of state violence because often these settler mobs are accompanied by Israeli soldiers who are often documented assisting, even actively participating in, acts of violence against Palestinians.”

One such case was caught on camera on October 13 when a settler walked into the Palestinian village of At-Tuwani in the South Hebron Hills, holding a rifle. As a uniformed Israeli soldier watched from a short distance, the settler approached an unarmed Palestinian villager — father of four Zakriha Adra — beat him with his rifle and then shot him in the stomach. The settler then walked away from the scene with the Israeli soldier.

Tensions between Israel and Washington over settlements seem certain to grow, with the Biden administration calling for a revival of the Oslo peace process — predicated on a two-state solution — once the war ends.

A man in a dark suit looks over a farming valley and gestures.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the site of new residential construction in the East Jerusalem settlement of Har Homa on Feb. 20, 2020. (Debbie Hill/Associated Press)

On Saturday night, Netanyahu took credit for blocking that peace process over the past three decades. “I’m proud that I prevented the establishment of a Palestinian state,” he told a news conference.

It was a remarkably blunt statement from a government that had in the past claimed publicly to be committed to the Oslo process.

A faction within the Netanyahu government never accepted the abandonment of Israeli settlements in Gaza in 2005, and sees the re-occupation of all Gaza as an opportunity to return.

Last week, a coalition of settler groups held the ‘Practical Preparation for Gaza Settlement Conference.’ One Israeli real estate company active in the West Bank has even run ads — under the slogan, “A house on the beach is not a dream” — using mock photos and maps that superimpose luxury dwellings over images of buildings destroyed by Israeli forces.

Harry Zahav, an Israeli real estate company active in building settlements, has already proposed a future settlement called 'Neve Katif' on the beaches of Gaza.
Harry Zahav, an Israeli real estate company active in building settlements, has already proposed a future settlement called ‘Neve Katif’ on the beaches of Gaza. (CBC News)

Far from complying with U.S. demands to bring violent settlers to justice, Israel is doubling down on its support for the settler movement, according to Israeli media reports. Ben Gvir reportedly has ordered Israel’s security forces to turn a blind eye to settler attacks and the displacement of Palestinians.

Ben Gvir came into politics as an activist of the Kach movement, a banned terrorist organization in Canada. Until he begrudgingly removed it in 2020, Ben Gvir for years kept a framed portrait in his living room of Baruch Goldstein, a settler from Brooklyn who in 1994 killed 29 Palestinian worshippers at a Hebron mosque.

Far-right Israeli lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks to journalists outside of the Likud Party headquarters after meeting with Nov. 1 poll winner Benjamin Netanyahu about forming a government, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Monday, Nov. 7, 2022. Ben Gvir gave no details about the talks but sought to assure his backers that Israel will have a right-wing government.
Far-right Israeli lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks to journalists outside of the Likud Party headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel on Nov. 7, 2022. (Maya Alleruzzo/Associated Press)

In 2016, Ben Gvir attended an extremist “wedding of hate” in 2016 in which settlers celebrated the murder of a Palestinian family in an arson attack by printing a photo of a baby who burned to death and then stabbing the photo with knives. Ben Gvir also defended one of the family’s killers in court.

Bueckert said western governments know perfectly well that Ben Gvir has no interest in stopping settler attacks.

“There are just so many examples of him actively encouraging this kind of violence that there’s no reason to think that the government is capable of holding them accountable,” he said.

“We can’t pretend that it’s normal for a lifelong supporter of ideologically motivated terrorism against Palestinians to be responsible for their security.”





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