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US drops 'Israeli-occupied' from Syria's Golan Heights and Palestinian territories

State Department's human rights report describes areas as 'Israeli-controlled' instead of 'Israeli-occupied'
US ambassador to Israel David Friedman said last year that Israel will retain Syrian territory indefinitely (Reuters/File photo)

The US State Department has referred to the Syrian Golan Heights and the Palestinian territories as "Israeli-controlled", a move that may signal a break from Washington's longstanding refusal to recognise Israeli sovereignty over areas it has occupied and unilaterally annexed.

In a human rights report released on Wednesday, the department failed to refer to the Golan Heights and the West Bank as occupied territories.

That points to a "continuation of the US administration's hostile approach to Palestinian people", said senior Palestinian Authority official Nabil Abu Rudeineh.

He said that the US designation does not change the fact that the Golan Heights remains an Israeli-occupied, Arab territory under international law and UN Security Council resolutions, Palestinian news agency Wafa reported on Wednesday.

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In past years, the State Department described the southern Syrian territory that overlooks the Sea of the Galilee, as "Israeli occupied", a designation that was dropped from this year's edition of the report.

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The document also suggests that the entire city of Jerusalem is a part of Israel.

"This section includes Israel, including Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights," the preface to the report's Israel chapter reads.

A State Department official, Michael Kozak, sought to downplay the significance of the report's phrasing, saying the designation of territories as occupied is a "legal status issue", not a human rights matter.

"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're reporting on," he told reporters at a briefing on Wednesday.

Kozak said the "geographic description" in the report does not signal a change in US policy, adding that Washington continues to stress the need for a "negotiated settlement" to the conflict.

Still, the fact that the State Department failed to describe the Syrian and Palestinian territories as occupied by Israel is worrisome, observers say.

The word "occupation" appears only three times in the report, but in two instances it refers to jobs when addressing occupational discrimination and labour rights.

Staunchly pro-Israel policies

Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the 1967 war and formally annexed the latter in 1980, declaring full sovereignty over the entire city in a move that remains unrecognised by the international community.

Israel also occupied Syria's Golan Heights in the same war and annexed the territory in 1981.

International law does not recognise Israel's hold on those territories and considers Israel's expanding settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem illegal.

'I personally cannot imagine a situation in which the Golan Heights will be returned to Syria'

- David Friedman, US ambassador to Israel

While the US has been a staunch defender of Israel for decades, President Donald Trump's administration has pursued aggressively pro-Israel policies since coming into office.

Trump moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem last year, sparking international rebukes, including from Washington's and Israel's allies in Europe.

In May of last year, Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz said his country was close to convincing Washington to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

Months later, the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, said Israel will hold on to the Syrian territory indefinitely.

"I personally cannot imagine a situation in which the Golan Heights will be returned to Syria. I frankly cannot imagine a situation in which the Golan Heights is not part of Israel forever," Friedman told the right-wing Israel Hayom newspaper at the time.

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