The United States no longer refers to the Golan Heights as an “Israeli-occupied” territory in its latest annual human rights report, published on Wednesday, though the State Department insists the wording change doesn’t mean a policy change.
The report now calls the area the “Israeli-controlled Golan Heights”.
When asked about the change on such a sensitive Middle East subject, a senior US official told reporters in Washington “there’s no change in our outlook or our policy vis-a-vis these territories and the need for a negotiated settlement there”.
“This, by the way, is not a human rights issue, it’s a legal status issue,” said Michael Kozak of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
“What we try to do is to report on the human rights situation in those territories, and so you’re just trying to find the way of describing the place that you’re reporting on,” he said. “And ‘occupied territory’ has a legal meaning to it; I think what they tried to do is to shift more to just a geographic description.”
And another semantic change that appeared in last year’s report showed up again this year, with a section titled “Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank and Gaza,” instead of its previous “Israel and the Occupied Territories” heading.
Defying international consensus
President Donald Trump, who has shown robust support for close US ally Israel, recognised Jerusalem as the country’s capital in 2017, defying international consensus much to the chagrin of Palestinian leaders, who view Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
Israel seized much of the Golan Heights from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War and then effectively annexed it in 1981, a move that was never recognised by the international community.
Israel and Syria remain technically at war after the 1973 War, though a demilitarised border zone established through an armistice had long been relatively calm until the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011.
Influential Trump ally US Senator Lindsey Graham said on Monday during a visit to the Golan Heights with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he would push for US recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the strategic region “now and forever”.
Last month, US Senators Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton and Congressman Mike Gallagher introduced legislation in the House of Representatives and the Senate to recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied Golan.
The Republican companion bills have seven co-sponsors in the Senate and 23 co-sponsors in the House. All are Republican. Both pieces of legislation have been referred to the respective foreign affairs committees.