New Trump administration report softens language on Israeli-occupied Golan Heights

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Thursday, 14 March 2019

New Trump administration report softens language on Israeli-occupied Golan Heights


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New Trump administration report softens language on Israeli-occupied Golan Heights

The State Department’s newest Human Rights Report describes the Golan Heights as “Israeli-controlled” instead of “Israeli-occupied,” a linguistic change sure to fuel criticism that the Trump administration is bucking global consensus on Israel’s reach.


The change comes as conservative U.S. lawmakers are pushing to have the Golan Heights recognized as part of Israel. If President Donald Trump goes along with that, it would be the latest of several pro-Israel moves on his part, including moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.


Michael Kozak, a top U.S. diplomat who briefed reporters Wednesday on the human rights report, said the new language did not reflect a change in U.S. policy toward the region. Rather, he said, it was about keeping the annual report more neutral.


“Occupied territory has a legal meaning to it,” he said, adding that the department is trying to stick with “just a geographic description.” He added the report avoided the word “occupied” because it is "not a human rights term and it was distracting.“


But the change comes a year after the Trump administration eliminated the report’s descriptions of the West Bank and Gaza — both territories claimed by Palestinians for a future state — as being “occupied” by Israel.


Since the 1967 Six Day War, Israel has controlled much of the strategic territory, which is claimed by Syria. The international community for the most part does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the land.


However, given the ongoing conflict in Syria, some hawkish Israel politicians — along with their allies in Washington — say it should keep the Golan Heights in perpetuity. The notion of ever handing over the area to the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad is anathema, they say.


U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) recently said he would push Congress to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. “To give this up would be a strategic nightmare for the State of Israel. And who would you give it to?” Graham said.


The shifts in the U.S. approach to the region, which activists say has largely been to the detriment of Palestinians, come as the Trump administration prepares to release its proposal to resolve the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


The proposal, spearheaded by Trump son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, is expected to be unveiled after Israel’s elections in April, though no firm date has been set.


This year’s human rights report, which covers countries all over the world but not the United States, also addresses the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabian operatives in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul last year.


But the report does not mention a key finding of U.S. intelligence officials: that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman orchestrated the killing.


Trump has largely dismissed allegations against the powerful crown prince, arguing that the U.S. has too many interests in Saudi Arabia, including weapons sales, to come down hard on a young man who could rule the Arab country for decades.


Pressed on why the crown prince was not mentioned in reference to Khashoggi, who was a Washington Post columnist, Kozak said the report describes Saudi efforts to hold other individuals responsible for the murder, and that the document needs to be “fact driven rather than opinion driven.”


He would not directly answer whether the department weighed U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusions in drafting the Saudi section.


The report details a range of abuses, including in China, where possibly millions of Muslims have been placed in camps for supposed “reeducation.” Reports from the region indicate there are abuses occurring at these camps.


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who introduced the report Wednesday but did not take any questions, said China is “in a league of its own when it comes to human rights violations.”


“You haven’t seen things like this since the 1930s,” Kozak added later.


The section on Myanmar, also known as Burma, describes the atrocities committed against the Rohingya Muslims, thousands of whom were killed and some 700,000 were pushed into neighboring Bangladesh in 2017.


U.N. officials and other international bodies have declared what happened a genocide. But the Trump administration has refused to use that label, sticking instead with “ethnic cleansing,” a term with far less weight in international law.


The administration has not hesitated to use the term genocide before: It did so within months of taking office, declaring that Christians in Iraq and Syria faced genocide at the hands of the Islamic State terrorist group. That declaration was actually a re-statement of the same position taken by the Obama administration.


Pressed on why the administration won’t declare that Muslims in Myanmar were also victims of genocide, Kozak cast the issue as one of diplomatic and public relations, despite the fact that making a genocide designation, under general interpretations of international law, would require the U.S. to try to stop the atrocity.


“This business of making a designation, it’s a messaging management tool,” he said. “It has no legal effect.... The usual reason you say something like that is you’re trying to call attention to it. Our feeling is we’ve called plenty of attention.“


He did not respond to an email seeking clarification.


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