Explaining Targeted U.S. Sanctions under the West Bank Executive Order

By Adam Keith and Amanda Strayer

President Biden’s February 1 executive order (E.O. 14115) created a broad and flexible targeted U.S. sanctions program focused on certain violent, intimidating, or destabilizing actions in the West Bank.  The same day, the State Department named four individuals whom it had sanctioned under the order.  This blog post offers a limited analysis of the targeted sanctions; the broader alert that the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network issued the same day is beyond its scope.

The focus of the sanctions program and who it can target

Overall, the U.S. sanctions are framed as a response to “persons undermining peace, security, and stability in the West Bank.”  While the executive order generally does not use the language of human rights, it presents “high levels of extremist settler violence, forced displacement of people and villages, and property destruction” as threats to a variety of stated U.S. interests, including achieving a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.  As in most targeted sanctions programs, the executive order provides for financial sanctions and a visa ban on anyone sanctioned.

The sanctions program is geographically confined to the West Bank.  Top U.S. officials emphasized in statements announcing the sanctions program that it is meant to address “attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians and Palestinian attacks against Israelis.”  While U.S. officials situated the executive order in the broader U.S. response to the October 7 atrocities by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups, this sanctions program has no direct bearing on Israeli or Palestinian actions in Gaza.  The U.S. government has imposed extensive sanctions on Hamas leaders and supporters under counterterrorism programs, both before and since October 7.

Many of the types of acts that are sanctionable under the executive order are similar to those in other country-specific sanctions programs.  The order makes it possible for the Treasury or State Department to impose sanctions on those who engage in “actions…that threaten the peace, security, or stability of the West Bank.”  As in other contexts, what constitutes such action is not fully defined, though illustrative examples are given, including enacting or implementing policies.  The order also appears to make some official inaction sanctionable as well (“failing to enforce policies…”) if it threatens stability.

Additionally, the order makes it sanctionable to engage in several types of violent or intimidating acts affecting the West Bank.  These include “an act of violence or threat of violence targeting civilians”; attempting to frighten civilians into leaving their homes; “property destruction”; or “seizure or dispossession of property by private actors.”  Many of these acts are more expansive than those that could be covered under sanctions programs that focus on serious human rights abuses or gross violations of human rights, such as the Global Magnitsky program or the Section 7031(c) visa sanctions authority.

Under some circumstances, individuals can also be sanctioned who have served as leaders or officials of “an entity, including any government entity, that has engaged in” the above acts, or of entities whose members have done so.  Providing support to a person sanctioned under this program, or being a company owned or controlled by such a person, are also grounds for sanctions.

The executive order is unusual in that it also includes a distinct set of sanctions criteria focused on various forms of involvement in “acts of terrorism affecting the West Bank.”  Unlike the U.S. government’s primary targeted sanctions program that focuses on terrorism (E.O. 13224, as amended), this criterion does not require that the terrorism being sanctioned pose a threat to U.S. persons or interests.  The U.S. government has designated Hamas as a foreign terrorist organization, and U.S. officials referred to certain actions by Israeli extremist settlers in August 2023 as a “terror attack.”

Only “foreign persons” – most likely to be Israeli or Palestinian nationals – can be targeted for these sanctions.  The U.S. government has made clear, though, that it can impose financial sanctions on dual nationals who have both U.S. and another citizenship, and indeed it has done so.  This is distinct from U.S. visa sanctions, which cannot be imposed on dual nationals, since anyone with U.S. citizenship has the right to enter the United States.

Who has been sanctioned

The scope and significance of these U.S. actions are much clearer than those of the opaque visa sanctions the State Department announced it had imposed in December.  According to the State Department’s February 1 press release, it used the new executive order to sanction four named Israeli nationals for their roles in various destabilizing, violent, or intimidating acts in the West Bank.  These alleged acts ranged from “le[ading] a riot…which resulted in the death of a Palestinian civilian” to “assaulting Palestinian farmers and Israeli activists by attacking them with stones and clubs.”

As a result, the sanctioned individuals generally cannot enter the United States; any assets that they may have in U.S. banks will be frozen, and it is illegal for U.S. persons (e.g., banks, entities, or individuals) to engage in transactions with them.  Under a Treasury Department regulation, any companies that is owned 50 percent or more by one of the sanctioned individuals will also be considered sanctioned.  Non-U.S. financial institutions are not required to similarly impose asset freezes on these individuals, though early indications suggest that some Israeli banks have done so.

The new sanctions appear to be far fewer in number than the December visa bans, which the State Department suggested would apply to dozens of individuals.  That could be due to the slightly different standards set by each sanctions program, and the expectation that the U.S. government is more likely to have to defend a financial sanction against a legal challenge than a mere visa ban.

While U.S. officials made clear the overall goal of the sanctions program, they did not – as is often the case, though not always – clearly spell out what kind of actions they sought from, or with respect to, the sanctioned individuals.  U.S. officials noted that “some of these individuals have been prosecuted in the Israeli system,” and mentioned in passing that frozen assets should be held “pending any lifting of the designation due to them changing behavior.”  Clarity on this point will be especially important if the sanctioned individuals petition for delisting from the sanctions.

As has been the case in some other U.S. sanctions programs, the first set of targets under this executive order focuses on individuals directly involved in specific violent incidents, rather than those who may bear broader responsibility for such conduct.  It has been reported and denied that the U.S. government considered including senior Israeli officials among those targeted for these sanctions.  More generally, U.S. officials have stated that they “intend to continue to pursue actions under this [executive order]” and “to scrutinize evidence of actions that would fall under the conduct.”

International response to U.S. sanctions

The greater transparency of these sanctions makes it more likely that other jurisdictions will follow the U.S. lead.  U.K., E.U., and Canadian officials all indicated that they might take or consider similar action after the U.S. government announced its visa bans in December – but U.S. visa confidentiality laws likely meant that it could not readily disclose to its counterparts the identity of those it had confidentially sanctioned.

On February 12, after the U.S. executive order was released, the U.K. government announced it had used its Magnitsky-style human rights sanctions program to sanction one of the four named U.S.-sanctioned individuals and three other “extremist Israeli settlers,” all for their involvement in “acts of aggression and violence against Palestinian individuals in the West Bank.”

Human Rights First and targeted sanctions

It is rare, though not unheard of, to see the U.S. government using its targeted sanctions tools against officials or individuals aligned with the government of a close U.S. security partner.  Human Rights First issued a report in 2022 highlighting this pattern, focusing on case studies about five U.S. partner countries – Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, India, Mexico, and the Philippines – where sanctionable human rights abuses or corruption was taking place but the U.S. government had taken little to no action under the Global Magnitsky program.  Targeted sanctions have often done more to promote accountability in the context of a friendly diplomatic relationship than they have in a hostile one.

Human Rights First works with NGOs wanting to make recommendations for targeted sanctions under any U.S. sanctions program related to human rights abuse or corruption.  Our resources for civil society groups are published here.



  • Adam Keith
  • Amanda Strayer

Published on February 14, 2024


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