In what may signal a major break in longstanding US policy, the State Department referred to the occupied Syrian Golan Heights as “Israeli-controlled,” as opposed to the usual “Israeli-occupied,” for the first time in their 2018 human rights report published Wednesday.
In the report, the State Department failed to refer to the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip as occupied territories.
Additionally, the preface of the report’s chapter on Israel reads “this section includes Israel, including Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights,” suggesting that the entirety of the city, including occupied East Jerusalem, is part of Israel.
The move comes one year after the State Department dropped the term “occupied territories” from the 2017 report’s headline. That year’s report, however, still referred to the respective territories as occupied in the text itself.
The Golan Heights, West Bank, and East Jerusalem were captured by Israel in the 1967 war. Jerusalem was formally annexed by Israel in 1980, and a year later Israel extended its “laws, jurisdiction and administration” into the Golan Heights, essentially annexing it as well.
The international community, including the US, has not recognized Israel’s sovereignty over those territories, and maintains that the continued settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is illegal.
As part of the international consensus, Washington has long referred to the territories as occupied.
During a press briefing, State Department official Michael Kozak told journalists that the report was retitled in order to refer to the geographic region.
“This is not a human rights issue. It’s a legal status issue… and ‘occupied territory’ has a legal meaning to it. I think what they tried to do was shift more to just a geographic description,” Kozak said.
“My understanding from the policy bureaus on this is that there’s no change in our outlook or our policy vis-a-vis the territories and the need for a negotiated settlement there… We decided not to use the term in the reports because it’s not a human rights term and it was distracting.”
Kozak’s assurances came just days after Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedmann, visited the Golan Heights and promised that he would lead an effort in the US “to recognize the Golan as part of the State of Israel now and forever.”
According to the Jewish Insider, Friedman was one of the key US figures who pushed for the change.
Jewish Insider quoted Aaron David Miller as saying, “The strategic imperative of this administration is to change U.S. policy toward Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict. This is another step in that process. For many in the administration, these areas aren’t occupied. So poof — with a simple word change, it’s no longer occupied.”
Since Trump took office, he has employed similar tactics when dealing with other issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
After recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Trump said the city would no longer be an issue in negotiations because he “took Jerusalem off the table.”
Trump officials used similar language after defunding UNRWA, saying, they took the issue of refugees “off the table.”
Palestinian officials slammed the new report from the State Department, with Dr. Hanan Ashrawi of the PLO calling it “morally and politically reprehensible,” and a “whitewashing” of the Israeli occupation.
“In its zealous pursuit to justify and mainstream the right wing agenda in Israel, the Trump administration has made a mockery of the Human Rights ‘Report’ and reaffirmed its complicity in the promotion and support of human rights violations against the Palestinian people,” Ashrawi said.
“The legal and political standing of Palestine and the Syrian Golan Heights as territory under Israeli occupation is indisputable under international law. Under the Trump administration, these facts have been discarded and denied in these “Reports”. However, denying facts cannot alter reality nor change the legal and standing moral obligations of states under international law to respect and ensure respect of human rights.”