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In return to pre-Trump norm, State Dep’t report refers to ‘occupied’ territories

Human rights report names chapter ‘Israel, West Bank and Gaza,’ as in Trump era, but areas themselves labeled ‘occupied’ for first time in years

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Israeli soldiers stop Palestinian protesters from reaching a Jewish settler outpost, at the outskirts of the West Bank village of Mughayer, north of Ramallah on December 18, 2020. (AP/Nasser Nasser)
Israeli soldiers stop Palestinian protesters from reaching a Jewish settler outpost, at the outskirts of the West Bank village of Mughayer, north of Ramallah on December 18, 2020. (AP/Nasser Nasser)

In a partial return to a pre-Trump-era norm, the US State Department’s annual report on human rights violations around the world published on Tuesday referred to the West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights as territories “occupied” by Israel.

However, the Biden administration did not go as far as to title the specific chapter in the 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices “Israel and the Occupied Territories,” as had been the custom for decades until the Trump administration, led by former US ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who pushed to have it altered to say “Israel” followed by a list of the disputed territories.

In the 2017 report, the chapter was titled “Israel, Golan Heights, the West Bank and Gaza. After then-US president Donald Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, the 2018 and 2019 reports dropped that territory from the section title.

The 2020 report — the first during the Biden administration — uses the same chapter label from the previous two years, “Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.”

In addition to changing the chapter title, the Trump-led State Department dropped almost every mention of occupation from the bodies of the 2017, 2018 and 2019 annual reports. The 2016 report was published in the early months of the Republican president’s administration, while the more moderate Rex Tillerson was secretary of state and before Friedman began his stint as ambassador.

The 2020 chapter states that it “covers the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem territories that Israel occupied during the June 1967 war.”

However, it also clarifies that “language in this report is not meant to convey a position on any final status issues to be negotiated between the parties to the conflict, including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the borders between Israel and any future Palestinian state.”

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (4th from right) tours the Efrat settlement with settler leaders on February 20, 2020. (Courtesy)

Asked to explain the decision to leave the chapter title on Israel and the Palestinians as it was under the Trump administration, Acting Assistant Secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Lisa Peterson told journalists at the report’s unveiling press conference that labeling the chapter by its geographic areas rather than the more general “Occupied Territories” was more useful to readers.

Palestinian Ambassador to the UK Husam Zomlot praised the labeling shift, but said that it would not be enough on its own.

“Good that we are back on the same page regarding the status of occupied territory. The real question is: What is the Biden administration going to do about it? It’s too late for talk, we need action to hold Israel accountable and to end the occupation,” Zomlot, who used to serve as the head of the PLO’s Mission in Washington,” told The Times of Israel.

Israel rejects the claim that it occupies the West Bank, saying the territories it has ruled since 1967 are “disputed.” While it maintains a blockade over the Gaza Strip, which it says is designed to prevent the smuggling of weapons to the enclave-ruling Hamas terror group, Israel notes that it pulled its military and citizens out of that territory.

Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 Six Day War and the Golan Heights in 1981. The US has never recognized the former move, but Trump did become the first president to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017 before recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights in 2019.

The Biden administration has said it would not walk back the Trump move on Jerusalem, agreeing that it is Israel’s capital. However, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has not recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, Feb. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, Pool, File)

Pressed on the issue last month, Blinken acknowledged that the area is critical for Israel’s security, and that the current situation in Assad-led Syria makes talk of Israel returning the Golan Heights irrelevant. However, “if the situation were to change in Syria, that’s something we’d look at,’ he said.

Biden himself notably pushed back against referring to Israel’s control over the West Bank as an “occupation” in the Democratic Party’s 2016 platform — a move that angered some more dovish voices in the party.

But since he’s entered office, his administration has declared that it plans to reverse several Trump administration policies deemed counterproductive and detrimental to prospects for a two-state solution, such as the cutting of aid to the Palestinians and the shuttering of diplomatic missions to them.

Much of the 2020 report is similar to prior years, cataloging human rights abuses by the Israel Defense Forces, Hamas and Palestinian Authority. However, abuses by Israel were slightly more detailed than they were during the Trump years.

Within Israel proper, the report notes “significant human rights issues,” such as “targeted killings of Israeli civilians and soldiers [by Palestinians]; arbitrary detention, often extraterritorial in Israel, of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza; restrictions on Palestinians residing in Jerusalem including arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, family, and home; interference with freedom of association, including stigmatizing human rights nongovernmental organizations; significant restrictions on freedom of movement; violence against asylum seekers and irregular migrants; violence or threats of violence against national, racial, or ethnic minority groups; and labor rights abuses against foreign workers and Palestinians from the West Bank.”

Palestinians attend a Hamas rally marking the 32nd anniversary of the terror group’s founding, in the southern Gaza Strip, December 16, 2019. (Fadi Fahd/Flash90)

As for Israeli abuses in the West Bank and Gaza, the State Department documents reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings of Palestinians due to unnecessary or disproportionate use of force; reports of torture; restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, unjustified arrests and prosecutions against journalists, censorship, and site blocking; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including harassment of nongovernmental organizations; and significant restrictions on freedom of movement, including the requirement of exit permits.

As for the PA, the State Department notes reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, torture, and arbitrary detention by authorities; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet — including violence, threats of violence, unjustified arrests and prosecutions against journalists, censorship, and site blocking; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including harassment of nongovernmental organizations; restrictions on political participation, as the PA has not held a national election since 2006; acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; violence and threats of violence motivated by anti-Semitism; anti-Semitism in school textbooks; violence and threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons; and reports of forced child labor.

On Hamas, the State Department highlights unlawful or arbitrary killings, systematic torture, and arbitrary detention by the terror group’s officials; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, unjustified arrests and prosecutions against journalists, censorship, site blocking, and the existence of criminal libel and slander laws; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on political participation, as there has been no national election since 2006; acts of corruption; reports of a lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; violence and threats of violence motivated by anti-Semitism; anti-Semitism in school textbooks; unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers; violence and threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons; and forced or compulsory child labor.

The State Department also notes “reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, and violence and threats of violence against Israeli citizens” by Palestinians and “reports of violence and threats of violence motivated by extremist nationalist sentiment” by Israelis.

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