The U.S. government now considers the Golan Heights — territory between Israel and Syria — to be “Israeli-controlled” instead of the past designation “Israeli-occupied.”
The State Department acknowledged the change in its annual human rights report Wednesday. The Golan Heights is considered by some governments Syrian territory.
Israel has occupied the area for more than 50 years after it was captured from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War. The territory and the West Bank have long been a source of controversy since, with Israel annexing the area when many in the international community believe Israelis should leave.
Two years ago, the State Department renamed the report to “Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank and Gaza,” from “Israel and the Occupied Territories.”
Diplomat Michael Kozak acknowledged the change in a briefing Wednesday.
“This, by the way, is not a human rights issue. It’s a legal status issue,” he said. “And so the decisions on that get made by the regional bureau, by the Legal Adviser’s Office, and we follow their lead.
“‘Occupied territory’ has a legal meaning to it. I think what they tried to do was shift more to just a geographic description,” he added. “It’s a complicated report because there are sometimes multiple authorities who have authority over people in particular parts of that territory. … But my understanding from the policy bureaus on this is that there’s no change in our outlook or our policy.”
The changes marked another perceived strengthening of ties between the Trump administration and Israel at the expense of Palestinians.
Since taking office, President Donald Trump moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and considers it Israel’s capital even though there are Palestinian claims to the city. The administration also shut down Palestinian diplomatic offices in Washington, D.C., and a U.S. consulate that assisted Palestinians.
“In December 2017 the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” the report’s executive summary said. “It is the position of the United States that the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final status negotiations between the parties. The Palestinian Authority exercises no authority over Jerusalem.”
During a meeting with U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham in Israel this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought up the value of the Golan Heights.
“I will go up with him to the Golan Heights as a continuation of efforts we are making to get the United States, together with other countries, to recognize Israeli sovereignty and the Israeli hold on the Golan,” he said.