Middle East

US and EU sanctions against Israeli extremists mark pivotal step against far right

The latest US and EU sanctions against individuals implicated in pro-settler violence in the occupied Palestinian territories represent a significant escalation in international moves against key far-right extremists in Israel.

While previous sanctions announcements have focused on individual settlers implicated in violence – often little known outside Israel – the latest moves mark the targeting of two far more high-profile individuals with connections to senior figures in far-right politics in Israel, including national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.

The new sanctions are also significant in that they target organisations that are sources of funding and support for settler groups. The EU put two “radical” organisations, Lehava and the Hilltop Youth, on its asset freeze and visa ban list for attacks on Palestinians.

Among those targeted for sanctions on Friday in the combined moves by Brussels and Washington, two names stand out: Meir Ettinger (of Hilltop Youth) and Bentzi Gopstein (of Lehava) who together represent the ideological well spring of extremist settler to violence and its connections to power in Israel.

Ettinger – the grandson of the extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, who was assassinated in the US in 1990 – has previously been held under Israel’s administrative detention regime for his alleged connections to “involvement in violent activities and terrorist attacks that occurred recently, and his role as part of a Jewish terrorist group”.

He is a leading figure in the Hilltop Youth, an extremist religious nationalist movement, known for establishing illegal outposts in the occupied West Bank, and the associated anti-state group the Rebellion, both of which are groups that have leaned heavily on prophetic tradition to justify violence.

Most notoriously Ettinger was detained after the July 2015 arson murder of the Dawabshe family in the village of Duma, which Ettinger was accused of inspiring.

Although not charged in connection with the murder, he was held under a measure allowing detention without trial.

Even more significant, perhaps, are the sanctions imposed by the US Treasury on Gopstein, the leader of the Lehava group, which opposes intermarriage with and the assimilation of non-Jews in Israel.

A longtime leading figure in extremist Jewish circles, he was convicted this year of making racist statements but was cleared of incitement to violence and terrorism charges.

During his trial, prosecutors noted a number of inflammatory comments made by Gopstein over the years including his praise for Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish terrorist who murdered 29 Palestinian worshippers at Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994.

Gopstein had earlier been barred by the Israeli supreme court from running from the Knesset for the Otzma Yehudit party, which would later win seats under the leadership of Ben-Gvir, because of his views.

In that case against Gopstein, the Israeli attorney general’s office argued that Gopstein’s actions over the years were “steeped in serious and severe incitement” to violent racism, suggesting that was a motivating factor for his rhetoric.

Despite that, Haaretz reported last year that he had been advising Ben-Gvir on policing issues, a report denied by Ben-Gvir’s office, although the two men have been photographed together including at a political campaign event in 2019.

Members of Gopstein’s group were also convicted for the 2014 arson attack on an Arab Jewish school in Jerusalem.

In 2022, Israel’s defence minister, Benny Gantz, suggested he was thinking of designating Lehava as a terrorist organisation, after it was at the forefront of the violence and inflammatory rhetoric at during a nationalist march through the Old City’s Muslim Quarter.

The new sanctions against those involved in extremist violence, coming so soon after previous rounds, suggests a rapidly escalating campaign of measures targeting Israel’s far right that now includes not just those directly connected to the attacks but those supplying the rhetoric and justification for them.


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