Israel no longer occupies Golan Heights, US State Department indicates

The recent report, which refers to the “Israeli-controlled” Golan Heights, is likely to win praise from Tel Aviv and draw condemnation from Damascus, which seeks to retake the territory it lost in 1967.

The US State Department has dropped references to the Israeli occupation in its 2018 human rights report on Israel, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and Gaza.

In contrast with earlier reports, the new paper does not describe the Golan Heights as an “occupied” area, watering down the wording, which now says the region is “Israeli-controlled”.

It comes as yet another sign of Washington’s growing support of Israel: earlier this week, US Senator Lindsey Graham said, after a tour of the disputed region, that he would push the Trump administration to formally recognise it as part of Israel.

Last month, Republican lawmakers in both chambers of Congress introduced bills “to ensure that Israel retains control of the Golan Heights”. Additionally, last year the US opposed the latest United Nations motion calling on Israel to end its occupation of the disputed area.

These displays of support for Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights come ahead of the early election in Israel, which is scheduled for 9 April. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is facing a criminal indictment on corruption charges, is campaigning for re-election for a fourth consecutive term.

Netanyahu has on a multitude of occasions stressed that Tel Aviv would not meet Syria’s demands and retreat to the 1967 lines because they were “indefensible”, and that the Golan Heights would “remain in the hands of Israel forever”.

The Golan Heights is a strategic area covering some 1,200 square kilometres, which is important in several aspects: apart from having symbolic value, it is being used by Israel as a natural buffer zone against possible military threats from Syria and also is a major water resource which provides one-third of Israel’s entire water supply.

Israel took control over most of the Golan Heights from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War, but formally annexed the occupied territory only in 1981. The law that extended Israeli jurisdiction over the area failed to garner international support: the UN Security Council branded it illegal and demanded that Tel Aviv rescind its decision. The United States refused to recognise it as well.

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