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Trump says US should recognise Israeli 'sovereignty' over occupied Golan

US president's statement on Israeli-occupied Syrian territory comes just ahead of Israel's 9 April elections
Druze women residing in Israeli-occupied Golan Heights look to other side of border (AFP/File photo)

Donald Trump said that the United States should recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, Syrian territory Israel has occupied since 1967.

"After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability!" the US president said on Twitter on Thursday.

Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria during the 1967 Middle East war.

In 1981, it passed the Golan Heights Law, annexing the territory in a move condemned and never recognised by the international community.

Trump's statement comes just over a week after the US State Department dropped "Israeli-occupied" from its description of the Golan Heights in its annual human rights report, a move that raised questions about a possible shift in longstanding US policy.

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The Golan Heights: Why it matters

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Officially part of Syria since the country’s independence in 1944, the Golan Heights is a strategic plateau straddling Israel and Syria and overlooking southern Lebanon.

It was captured by Israel during the Middle East war of 1967 and subsequently annexed in a move never recognised by the international community.

The Golan is recognised as part of Syria by the United Nations. UN Resolution 242 calls for Israel to withdraw from the Golan and other occupied territories including the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

However, Israel has repeatedly refused to do so and in 1981, it formally annexed the Syrian territory.

A UN peacekeeping force has patrolled the demarcation line between Syrian and Israeli-controlled areas of the Golan since 1974.

Israel has constructed settlements that are illegal under international law in the occupied territory and settled its citizens there.

Some 20,000 Israeli settlers currently live in the Golan, alongside around 26,000 of the territory’s native inhabitants, who are predominantly Druze and identify as Syrian.

Since the Syrian war erupted in 2011, Syrians in the Golan taking Israeli citizenship has become more common, though the vast majority reject it.

The Golan is thought to provide around one-third of Israel's fresh water supply. Water from the territory flows into the Sea of Galilee and Jordan River.

Other than its strategic significance - the Golan is the only land border between Israel and Syria - the territory is also used by Israelis for leisure purposes. The area counts an Israeli ski resort and several vineyards.

The US president's statement was welcomed by Israeli premier and close ally Benjamin Netanyahu, who linked it to Iran's involvement in the Syrian war next door.

"At a time when Iran seeks to use Syria as a platform to destroy Israel, President Trump boldly recognizes Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Thank you President Trump!" Netanyahu tweeted.

Netanyahu later said in a statement that he personally thanked Trump in a telephone call on Thursday. "The message that President Trump has given the world is that America stands by Israel," he said.

"We are deeply grateful for the US support. We're deeply grateful for the unbelievable and unmatchable support for our security and our right to defend ourselves."

Jason Greenblatt, a top Trump adviser on the Middle East, also hailed his boss's announcement as a "bold, courageous, and historic decision".

Trump "understands Israel and its security needs", Greenblatt said on Twitter. "Thank you President Trump for your tremendous leadership!"

Golan Heights map

Trump's intervention is the latest contentious shift in US policy in the region, following his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and decision to move the American embassy to the city.

East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians seek as the capital of their future state, was also annexed by Israel following its capture in 1967. Again, the international community has not accepted Israeli sovereignty there.

Trump 'emboldens Israel'

Contacted by MEE on Thursday afternoon, the UN Secretary-General's deputy spokesman, Farhan Haq, declined to comment on Trump's statement.

Ariel Gold, co-director of feminist anti-war group CODEPINK, likened Thursday's announcement to the embassy move to Jerusalem last year, calling it a "flagrant violation of international law".

'This lets Israel know - like the embassy move did - that their government has the backing of the US, and so ... they don't need to take into account as much what will help create peace'

- Ariel Gold, co-director of CODEPINK

She said the Golan decision further isolates the US from international consensus while diminishing the prospects of peace in the Middle East.

"This emboldens Israel to continue their various actions, such as massive settlement growth, [and] to move further and further away from peace," Gold told MEE.

"This lets Israel know - like the embassy move did - that their government has the backing of the US, and so ... they don't need to take into account as much what will help create peace."

Netanyahu, who is fighting a fierce battle to be re-elected in Israeli polls set for 9 April, is scheduled to arrive in Washington next week and dine with Trump.

The Israeli prime minister has been pressing his American ally to declare support for Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, which commentators have predicted would be a boost for his electoral chances.

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