Golan wording seen by some as precursor of diplomatic shift

US calls Golan ‘Israeli-controlled,’ drops all mention of West Bank ‘occupation’

Administration denies choice of language in State Dep’t report marks policy change; Netanyahu said pushing hard for Trump to recognize Israeli sovereignty on Golan before elections

US Senator Lindsey Graham, left, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, right, on a tour of the Golan Heights, March 11, 2019. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
US Senator Lindsey Graham, left, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, right, on a tour of the Golan Heights, March 11, 2019. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

WASHINGTON — For the first time, the Trump administration referred to the Golan Heights on Wednesday as “Israeli-controlled” and ceased to refer to the West Bank as “occupied” in the State Department’s annual report on human rights around the world.

While last year’s report marked a departure from years of American foreign policy by no longer calling the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights “occupied” in the section title, this year’s report went two small steps further.

“Authorities subjected non-Israeli citizens in Jerusalem and the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights to the same laws as Israeli citizens,” this year’s text says. In previous iterations of the same report, the Golan Heights was described in the text as “Israeli-occupied.”

This year’s report also refrains from labeling any of the territories as “occupied.”  In last year’s document, the US government took a position in referring to these areas. “Authorities prosecuted Palestinian non-citizens held in Israel under Israeli military law, a practice Israel has applied since the 1967 occupation,” read one passage. The new report, by contrast, uses the term “occupied” just twice — and only when quoting outside organizations, such as the Israeli nonprofit Breaking the Silence and the United Nations.

Reference to the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights in State Department report, March 2019.

Despite the change in language vis-a-vis the Golan Heights, an administration official on Wednesday denied that it amounted to American recognition of Israeli sovereignty over that area.

“Our policy on Golan has not changed,” a spokesperson for the US embassy in Jerusalem told The Times of Israel.

Israeli Merkava Mark IV tanks take positions near the Syrian border in the Golan Heights on May 10, 2018. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War and extended Israeli law to the territory in 1981, a step tantamount to annexation. But the United States and the international community have long considered it Syrian territory under Israeli occupation.

In Israel, the altered language in the State Department report drew praise from some right-wing leaders.

Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely in Washington, November 2017. (Shmulik Almany/MFA)

Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely praised the move on Wednesday afternoon, and attributed it to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s diplomatic efforts. “The fact that the definition ‘occupied territory’ is missing from an official document of the State Department is an important step for Israel’s foreign relations and for the future of the settlements,” she said.

“This year’s report for the first time does not use the inaccurate legal description ‘occupation’ to refer to Israel’s presence in the West Bank or Golan,” said Professor Eugene Kontorovich, a professor of international law and director of International Law at the Jerusalem-based Kohelet Policy Forum.

“This is a massive change in how America relates to the conflict. It is coming to understand that while Israel and the Palestinians have a dispute, international law does not provide the answers to that dispute. The report also for the first time expresses skepticism at the claims and submissions of anti-Israel groups, whose poorly documented allegations had previously been accepted as gospel,” he said.

The report also includes a lengthy section on Hamas activities in Gaza, including its orchestration last summer of border protests that resulted in violence.

“Israel Defense Forces (IDF) shot and killed 190 Palestinians at the Gaza fence as of the end of the year, including 41 minors, according to B’Tselem [an Israeli NGO],” the report said.

“Human rights organizations claimed most victims posed no imminent threat to the IDF,” the report went on. “The [Israeli] government stated that many of the victims were operatives of Hamas or encouraged by Hamas to protest near the fence. The government claimed the IDF used live fire as a last resort, when a clear and imminent threat existed, and they aimed below the knee with the intention to wound but not to kill.”

The Trump administration’s shift on Wednesday could be seen as a victory for Netanyahu, who is in the middle of a fierce re-election campaign.

Earlier this week, during a visit to Israel, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican and ally of the president, made a plea alongside Netanyahu for the US to officially recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, saying he planned to “start an effort to recognize the Golan as part of the State of Israel, now and forever.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then-IDF chief of staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz watch a military exercise of the army’s Golani Brigade on the Golan Heights, September 11, 2012. (Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

Israel’s Channel 13 news reported Wednesday night that Netanyahu is working “very hard” to have the Trump Administration recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan before the April 9 elections, and noted that his rival, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, is worried by the prospect of this happening and boosting Netanyahu’s popularity.

US President Donald Trump meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on September 26, 2018 in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. (AFP PHOTO / Nicholas Kamm)

The use of “Israeli-controlled” in the State Department report, the TV report said, might constitute “a hint” at US readiness to consider moving toward recognition.

It said the use of language in the report was closely overseen by US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who tasked an aide with going through the text “with a red pen, crossing out the word ‘occupation’.”

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