Disputes over the Golan Heights: the US and Shaky International Law

Forget a golf course, failed university, or another Trump Tower, will there soon be a “Trump Town” located in the Golan Heights? And how long will it be before protestors start tearing down the letters from any sign bearing the name Trump in the Golan Heights? 

Recently, President Trump, in a shockingly transparent bid to help Prime Minister Netanyahu win reelection, extended formal recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights. In appreciation for Trump’s shameless support of his candidacy, Netanyahu called for a community in the Golan Heights to be named after Trump.  

Trump’s shortsighted and ill-advised move upended established U.S. foreign policy regarding the occupied lands, caused an international uproar, and violated international law. Until Trump’s decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty, the entire world considered the Golan Heights to be occupied land under international law since its 1967 seizure by Israel from Syria. Trump’s thoughtless action not only affects Syrian territory, but it also has implications for Lebanon and regional stability that the United States may not have considered. Located within Israeli occupied territory is Lebanese land known as Shebaa Farms and the adjacent Kfar Shouba hills, which Israel also seized in 1967. Lebanese President Michel Aoun strongly protested that U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights undermines Lebanon’s claim to Lebanese territory also annexed by Israel. By unilaterally recognizing Israeli sovereignty over occupied territory, the United States has threatened the relative stability of the Golan Heights, has increased regional instability by drawing Lebanon into the fray over Lebanese lands occupied by Israel, has angered Arab allies, and acted in violation of established international law that rejects the acquisition of territory by war, setting a dangerous precedent for the world today.

Image Courtesy of ChrisO via Wikimedia © 2007, some rights reserved

Located on a plateau between Israel and Syria, the Golan Heights were captured from Syria by Israeli forces in the June 1967 Six-Day War. Strategically important, the Golan Heights overlook Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan. Like the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which were also occupied by Israel in the 1967 war, the Golan Heights were designated as occupied territory from which Israeli forces were required to withdraw according to U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 (1967). In 1981, Israel extended Israeli law to the Golan Heights, but the United States and the international community continued to maintain that it was Syrian territory under Israeli occupation. 

Israel’s goal in seizing the Golan Heights was not just military in nature. Israel also sought to prevent Syrian control of tributaries that fed into the freshwater Sea of Galilee which borders the Golan Heights. After the 1973 October War, Israeli forces repelled Syria’s attempt to recapture the Golan Heights and a disengagement agreement established United Nations peacekeeping buffer zones between Syria and Israel. The Israeli government approved construction of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories and today the population in the Golan Heights consists mostly of Syrian Druze and Israeli settlers. Since the onset of civil war in Syria in 2011, the relatively stable Golan Heights has gained new strategic significance for Israel. As the devastating civil war raged, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad maintained his power and his government’s survival through the help of Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia movement. With the growing power of Iran and its proxies in Syria, Israel claims to fear that the status quo in the Golan Heights will shift. U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights, however, contradicts established international law and threatens the fragile status quo of the buffer zones established by the United Nations after the last war. 

Israeli occupied territories also include the Shebaa Farms and the Kfar Shouba hills, disputed territory claimed by Lebanon. In 2000, Israel withdrew from south Lebanon, after a lengthy occupation, but retained control of the farms. The Lebanese government has demanded that Israel withdraw from the territory, but Israel rejects the Lebanese claims, asserting the land belonged to Syria when it was captured in 1967. The U.N., which does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, has determined that Lebanon’s claim to the Israeli occupied territory is to be settled when the issue of the Golan Heights is decided.

Joining critics around the world, President Aoun rejected Trump’s formal recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights, asserting that the action was a clear violation of international law. In talks with Russian President Putin, Aoun said Trump’s decision undermines the authority of the United Nations and causes concern to countries that neighbor Israel. In particular, the Lebanese president said that the U.S. decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights undermined Lebanon’s claim to disputed territories including the Shebaa Farms and Kfar Shouba Hills, which were also seized by Israel in 1967. Trump’s unilateral action has now impacted the fate of Lebanese land which the U.N. had determined would be settled when the Golan Heights issue was resolved. As a result, Lebanese officials fear that Trump’s action would also mean recognizing the occupied Lebanese territories as falling under Israeli sovereignty and undermining Lebanon’s claim.  

In response to the U. S. action to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, Arab countries unanimously voiced opposition, claiming the United States was unfairly biased toward Israel, further undermining the ability of the United States to act as an honest broker in the Middle East and especially with respect to any dispute with Israel. Moreover, Trump’s decision has united many countries in opposition to the unilateral U.S. action including the EU, Turkey, Iran, Russia, Syria, and the Gulf countries, further undermining any role the U.S. may seek to play in the Middle East.

Finally, while increasing regional instability, the risky U.S. decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over occupied territory has also significantly harmed traditional U.S. foreign policy around the world and undermined well established principles of international law. It is clear under international law, including laws drafted by the United States, that the acquisition of territory by war is prohibited. In the face of this recent action by the United States, other countries will be emboldened to seize territory and hold onto it until the seizure becomes what Israel calls “facts on the ground.” What impact will this action have on U.S. policy in the Ukraine after years of condemning Russia for its annexation of Crimea in 2014? How will the U.S. continue to legitimately challenge Chinese territorial ambitions in the South China Sea? The potential repercussions from Trump’s action are significant and dangerous and should not be underestimated.


Banner picture: Image Courtesy of Shealah Craighead via flickr © 2019, some rights reserved