Assessing US Recognition of Golan Heights
Hirak Jyoti Das, Research Associate, VIF

On 21 March 2019, the US President Donald Trump announced his decision in a tweet stating that the US after 52 years have recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights. The reason according to President Trump is that the region holds critical strategic importance for the Jewish state to attain regional stability. The US President met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on 25 March 2019 and signed a presidential proclamation recognizing Israel’s sovereign rights over the 1,250 sq km territory.1

The Golan Heights has been officially part of Syria since its independence on 17 April 1946. Israel captured the strategically important region during the 1967 Arab-Israel war along with Gaza from Egypt and West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan. Syria, during the 1973 Arab-Israel war attempted to recover the territories. The war consequently forced both sides to enter into negotiations in which both agreed to establish a zone of separation, disengage forces and release prisoners of war under the supervision of United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF). The disengagement agreement was signed on 31 May 1974.2 The UN, at the same time, maintained that Golan was an occupied territory and the UNSC Resolution 242 calls upon Israel to vacate its presence from all occupied territories including Golan.3

Israel, however, continued to maintain control and on 15 December 1981, the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, by a vote of 63 in favour and 21 against, approved to extend Israeli jurisdiction and administration to the region which is tantamount to unilateral annexation of territory captured by force.4 On 17 December 1981, UNSC passed Resolution 497 reaffirming that the acquisition of territory by force was inadmissible in accordance with the UN Charter and declared that Israel’s decision to impose its laws, jurisdiction and administration in the Golan Heights was null and void and did not possess international legal effect.5 Earlier on 30 July 1980, the Knesset ratified the Basic Law which essentially allowed annexation of the eastern part of Jerusalem captured from Jordanian control in 1967 Arab-Israel War, and declared Jerusalem as the eternal undivided capital of Israel.6 The UN Security Council, a month earlier on 30 June 1980, passed Resolution 476 asking Israel, the occupying power, to end its occupation of Arab territories including Jerusalem.7

In case of Golan, soon after its capture and the following ceasefire at the end of Six Days war in 1967, the Israeli government pushed for building settlements in violation with the international law. According to Al-Marsad, a human rights organization working in the Golan Heights region, the total population of Golan in 1966 was 147,613. After Israel took control of the territory, around 139,000 people lived in 312 residential areas, 146 villages and 146 Farms. The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) forcefully pushed out approximately 131,000 people into Syria, reducing the population to 6,790 primarily residing in six villages in north Golan namely, Majdal Shams, Masa’da, Bqa’atha, ‘Ein Qinyeh, Al-Ghajar and Sheita.8 Presently, around 25,000 belonging predominantly to the Druze religious community and around 21,000 Israeli settlers are residing in the disputed territory. The region is administered by the Golan Regional Council located in the Israeli settlement of Katzrin.9

The Israeli government, after the capture in 1967, prohibited the local population to return to their towns and villages and under Military Order No. 58 passed on 17 September 1967; Syrians that attempted to return to the places of residence could be imprisoned for 15 years.10 After Knesset’s approval to annex the territories in 1981, the government attempted to extend citizenship to the local population which has been vehemently rejected. According to Aaron Southlea, Advocacy Officer from Al-Marshad speaking to Al Jazeera, presently merely 6.5 percent of the local population have sought Israeli citizenship.11 The civil war in Syria has somewhat demoralized political motivations towards Syria and according to Israeli Population and Immigrant Agency, an average of 130 individuals have applied for Israeli citizenship between 2015 and 2017 as compared to 22 people between 2012 and 2014.12

The local population, however, has continued to face problems from the Israeli government in terms of attempts at expropriation of land, halting building and land use, establishing control over water resources, de-Arabizing the population, restricting freedom of movement and instances of interference in cultural, educational and religious rights of the local community. On 14 February 2019, hundreds of local population in the region took to the streets holding Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s portraits and Syrian flags pledging loyalty to Syria.13 The scenes were repeated again after Trump’s proclamation in Majdal Shams, a major town in the Israeli-occupied Golan region and on the Syrian side of the border, chanting slogans that “Golan is Syrian Arab Land and not Israeli land”. 14 Ayman Abu Jabal, a prominent member of the Druze community stated that neither the US nor Israel can change the historical fact that the region in part of Syria and would remain a part of Syria.15 The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres maintained that status of Golan is unchanged as it remains an occupied territory. 16 However, he fell short of criticizing the US for violating the UN Charter and international law.

From Israel’s perspective, strategic significance of the mountainous region lies in its high altitude which serves as a crucial vantage point to monitor Syria’s military movement and serves as a natural buffer against military aggression. The region also provides one-third of Israel’s fresh water supply that feeds into the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee. Moreover, the land is highly fertile with numerous orchards, vineyards and is suitable for cattle-rearing. Therefore, the dispute in Golan is largely driven by control over resources. 17

There are instances in the past wherein Israel indicated the possibility of the return of Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for a peace treaty. The then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak met with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Al Shara in which the subject was discussed. It, however, failed due to Syria’s insistence for full withdrawal.18 The talks were revived in 2008 through Turkey’s mediation but negotiations were suspended after Israel’s incursion in Gaza in 2009 and finally collapsed after the beginning of Syrian Civil war in 2011.19

During his speech, President Trump announced that the decision was made to promote Israel’s ability to defend itself and achieve ‘powerful’ national security which they are entitled to have. According to the US President, Israel ‘took control’ over the Golan Heights in 1967 to safeguard its security from external threats and in the present context, Israel’s control over Golan Heights is significant due to the surge in aggressive action by Iran and militant groups in Southern Syria which uses its territory to launch attacks against Israel. He also specified that any future peace agreement must take into account the Israeli precondition to defend itself from Syria, Iran and other regional threats. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Trump’s leadership and their solid relations. He mentioned that like the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israel wars, Israel stands tall and would continue to hold the high ground.20 The White House has stated that the decisions to accept Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and recognize Golan Heights as part of Israel only acknowledge the ground reality which is an essential basis for legitimate peace negotiations. The US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, on 6 September 2018, said that Israel is expected to keep Golan in perpetuity. He also mentioned that Syrian President Bashar Al Assad as unworthy of claiming control of the prize, i.e., Golan.21

Indications of a shift in the US policy was observed on 16 November 2018 as the US voted against a UN General Assembly Resolution condemning Israel’s occupation in Golan Heights, and claiming the resolution to be biased against the Jewish state. The US had historically abstained from voting on the said resolution. In the 2018 vote, the US and Israel were the only members to vote ‘No’ on the resolution while 151 members cast ‘yes’ vote.22 This was followed by the visit of the US senator from the Republican Party, Lindsey Graham, to the disputed territory on 11 March 2019 in which he committed to pushing the US to recognize it as a part of Israel. He mentioned that Israel captured the territory during a fight for its survival as the area was used for launching attacks on Israel. He also mentioned about the rich Jewish history in the area.23

Subsequently, on 13 March 2019, the US State Department in its annual 2018 global human rights report, replaced the term ‘Israeli-occupied’ to ‘Israeli-controlled’, raising international attention over the change in language. 24 In a separate section, the wording of the 2017 and 2018 reports referring to ‘Israel and the Occupied Territories’ have been changed to ‘Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank and Gaza’.25 According to the US State Department, the report seeks to address human rights issues rather than legal terminology. In case of Russia’s annexation of Crimea however, both 2017 and 2018 reports maintained unambiguous language consistent with the laws of occupation stating, "The country’s occupation and purported ‘annexation’ of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula continued to affect the human rights situation there significantly and negatively." 26,27 The differences in the US approach as reflected in the report raised questions about the objectivity of the country reports.

Eventually, on 25 March 2019, President Trump signed the presidential proclamation recognizing the territory as part of Israel. It is seen as a departure from the US policy as it had earlier maintained that Israel’s borders would be decided through a negotiated settlement. The US decision has been widely evaluated due to its political timing which is likely to provide a political boost to Netanyahu ahead of an election in Israel in April 2019. Several analysts have argued that proclamation also serves as a distraction in the domestic situation in both the US and Israel. President Trump had been facing allegations of collusion with Russia to influence the 2016 Presidential election. The investigation conducted by former FBI director Robert Muller and submitted to Department of Justice on 22 March 2019 found no evidence of collusion; however Muller while laying evidence for and against the obstruction of justice charge, refused to draw a conclusion.28 The report essentially did not exonerate or absolve Trump on charges of obstruction of justice. Trump’s decision according to observers is also driven by his attempt to consolidate the domestic evangelical and Jewish voter base and lobbies.

In Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu is facing charges on three corruption cases, two cases in which he allegedly bought positive media coverage and one case in which he received gifts worth US$ 200,000.29 The US recognition therefore is aimed to help his domestic popularity and present him as a credible face who has succeeded in establishing closer ties with President Trump.

The decision to recognize territory captured by Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israel war and annexed in 1981 is likely to set a problematic precedent. Several political commentators have drawn a parallel between the US’ recognition for Israeli annexation with the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. Moreover, China could also utilize the Golan precedent to legitimize its island building projects in the South China Sea. Therefore, the visible violation of international law that prohibits taking over territory by force could be utilized by other states to seek claim over territories by annexing and declaring sovereignty.30

Moreover, the direct effect of increasing animosity between Israel and its neighbours is also a cause of worry for several analysts. The US’ overt motivations for recognizing Golan is to securitize the region in particular and Israel in general from external threats. However, the latest move appears to have done the opposite by pushing Israel into a perpetual state of war with Syria. The Syrian government called it blatant aggression on its sovereignty and territorial integrity, making the US the main enemy of the Arabs. It also committed to work towards liberating Golan by all available means. 31

The Secretary-General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, exclaimed that the US move was a crucial turning point in Arab-Israel conflict and warned the US not to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied West Bank. He gave a call for resistance to recover the territory.32 Iranian President Hasan Rouhani rejected Trump’s premise stating that "No one could imagine that a person in America comes and gives the land of a nation to another occupying country…”333 The decision seems to unite the Persian Gulf states and Iran in their shared condemnation against the US. European Union (EU), Arab League, Russia and China have also condemned the US policy. Therefore, the picture of insecurity in Golan portrayed by Israel and the US to the international community has crashed and it has been replaced by international support for Syria’s sovereignty, in effect legitimizing President Bashar Al Assad’s government.

From the perspective of Palestinians and many Arabs, the latest move has appeared to crush any hope of negotiated peace, quashed the process of Arab-Israeli reconciliation and heightened doubts on the US as an honest arbitrator. The move at the same time could embolden the strategic positioning of Iran and Hezbollah who appear as crucial allies of the Palestinian cause and Syria.

Domestically within Israel, the move could pave the way to lay claim to other territories it captured during defensive wars. It has already empowered the right-wing groups to call for complete annexation of the West Bank. A day after the Trump’s President Proclamation, on 26 March 2019, the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, speaking at American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) convention stated that the US acknowledges Israel’s need to maintain overriding security control over West Bank and a permanent defence position in Jordan Valley in case of a future peace agreement with the Palestinians.34 While the details of the upcoming ‘Deal of the Century’ is shrouded in mystery, Friedman’s position on maintaining Israeli military control over a future Palestinian state is likely to be rejected by the Palestinian Authority (PA) that has maintained its demand for full withdrawal from West Bank and return to pre-1967 borders. The Haaretz editorial on 27 March 2019 noted that Israeli right would use the Golan precedent to annex West Bank by utilizing salami tactics. It may seek to annex Area C and then proceed to entrench its control over Area B and Area A in the West Bank. 35

The US decision has dismantled the prospect of a two-state solution and has made the possibility of contiguous Palestinian state harder. In the present context, if the word ‘occupied’ is in fact omitted, then Israel does not have any legal basis to prosecute Palestinians living in West Bank in military courts and would be obliged to provide civil and political rights, which is unlikely to happen due to the Jewish nature of the state.36 The UNDOF, at the same time, has been posted in the buffer zone after the 1974 Disengagement Agreement between both states. It has played a key role in diluting the tensions over the years. However, in the new reality, questions have emerged over the validity of the UN force in the disputed territory.37

The move to recognize Golan as part of Israel is short-sighted and driven by domestic and strategic interests for both the US and Israel. From Prime Minister Netanyahu’s perspective, US recognition is likely to become a crucial factor in the upcoming elections. However, going beyond strategic interests, the decision has overlooked the voices and concerns of the local community that continues to view its homeland as part of Syria and despite persistent efforts by the government, the integration process with the Israeli state has been incomplete. The Presidential proclamation has set a dangerous precedent that has legitimized acquisition of territory by force, raised the scope of animosity against Israel and the US, could increase the geo-strategic footprint of Iran and its allies, and push for complete annexation of other occupied territories.

Lastly, contrary to the US belief that the recognition of annexation of Golan Heights would lead to security and regional stability, it fails to consider that the continuing occupation is, in fact, one of the root cause of insecurity for Israel. The latest move has only contributed to the already protracted nature of the conflict in the region and would lead to further alienation of the Palestinian cause.

References:
  1. BBC News. “Golan Heights: Trump signs order recognising occupied area as Israeli.”BBC News. March 25, 2019. Accessed March 26, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-47697717
  2. UN. “Separation of Forces between Israel and Syria.” United Nations. May 31, 1974. Accessed March 26, 2019. https://peacemaker.un.org/sites/peacemaker.un.org/files/IL%20SY_740531_Separation%20of%20Forces%20between%20Israel%20and%20Syria.pdf
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  35. Haaretz. “Stop Israel's Coming Annexation.” Haaretz. March 27, 2019. Accessed March 28, 2019. https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/editorial/stop-israel-s-coming-annexation-1.7061792
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  37. The Hindu. “UN peacekeeping force on the Golan Heights has a vital role to play in preserving stability between Israel and Syria.” The Hindu. March 28, 2019. Accessed March 29, 2019.
    https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/syria-repels-israeli-air-aggression-in-aleppo-province-report/article26660665.ece

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