The change began gradually two years ago, when the State Department replaced the country designation of “Israel and the occupied territories” with “Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank and Gaza.”
Within the 2017 report itself, however, the State Department last year still used the word “occupation” but much more sparingly. In 2016, the report referred to the occupied territories, and in 2017 it spoke of the Palestinian territories.
This year, the 2018 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices made no mention of the word “occupation” at all.
Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria during the Six-Day War and annexed it in 1981. The United States and the international community have never recognized that act. Since the Six-Day War, Israel has never annexed the West Bank, and it withdrew from Gaza in 2005.
Right-wing politicians have pressured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to apply Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank, which they refer to as Judea and Samaria.
The shift on the Golan comes as US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham promised Netanyahu that he would work to sway the Trump administration to recognize Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights.
At a Wednesday State Department press conference in Washington about the report, Michael Kozak from the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor downplayed the move.
“My understanding is that there is no change in our outlook or our policy vis-à-vis the territories and the need for a negotiated settlement there,” Kozak said.
A reporter pressed him on the point: “You no longer consider the West Bank to be occupied?”
“No. I said that our policy on the status has not changed. That is my understanding. We decided not to use the term in the reports because it is not a human rights term and it was distracting,” Kozak said.
The linguistic change was made by the regional bureau of the Office of the Legal Adviser, Kozak said.
“What we’re trying to do is report on the human rights situation in those territories.... You’re just trying to find a way of describing the place that you are reporting on. ‘Occupied territory’ has a legal meaning to it. What they tried to do was shift more to just a geographic description. So we said Israel, Golan, West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem.”
“It’s a complicated report because there are sometimes multiple authorities who have authority over people in particular parts of that territory. So it’s a very complicated one to write,” Kozak said.
ISRAELI POLITICIANS took the linguistic shift as an affirmative nod from the Trump administration on the acceptance of the Golan as part of sovereign Israel and support for the annexation of the West Bank.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein said, “The nation has long been with the Golan, now [US President Donald] Trump is also. Thank you, President Trump, for another important step on the path of truth and justice – for the Golan Heights and for Judea and Samaria. The next step: the application of sovereignty [in Judea and Samaria]!” Edelstein said.
MK Bezalel Smotrich (Bayit Yehudi) called on Netanyahu to take action, explaining that the State Department shift in language provided a “window of opportunity” for such a step.
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) thanked Israel’s “great friend” the United States, which “continues to stand for historical truth.
“The fact that the term ‘occupied territory’ is absent from an official [US] State Department document is an important step for Israel’s foreign relations and the future of the [West Bank] settlements,” Hotovely said.
She credited both Netanyahu and the Foreign Ministry for the State Department’s linguistic shift.
“I welcome the move. I’m confident that in the future, other countries will also stand by Israel,” Hotovely said.
Yesha Council foreign envoy and Efrat Council head Oded Revivi said it was a “welcome and courageous act by the US administration that has consistently resisted the standard international consensus when it diverged with reality, just like the US government’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.”
Prof. Eugene Kontorovich, director of international law at the Jerusalem-based Kohelet Policy Forum said, “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 have previously been accepted as gospel.”
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