March 13, 2019 / 3:49 PM / 6 months ago

U.S. drops reference to 'Israeli-occupied' Golan Heights in annual rights report

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The U.S. State Department changed its usual description of the Golan Heights from “Israeli-occupied” to “Israeli-controlled” in an annual global human rights report released on Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO: A couple look towards signs pointing out distances to different cities, on Mount Bental, an observation post in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights that overlooks the Syrian side of the Quneitra crossing, Israel January 21, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

The move came amid intensified efforts by Israel to win U.S. recognition of its claim to sovereignty over the strategic plateau it captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war and effectively annexed in 1981, a step not recognized internationally.

There was no immediate comment from Israeli leaders on the U.S. terminology change, which stopped short of a formal declaration accepting the territorial claim.

The Golan - like the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories also taken by Israel in the June 1967 conflict - is regarded internationally as occupied under a U.N. Security Council resolution passed later that year.

On Monday, Republican U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham toured the Golan with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and pledged to lobby the Trump administration to recognize the area as belonging to Israel.

A separate section in the State Department report, on the West Bank and Gaza, did not include the terms “occupied” or under “occupation” in referring to the Palestinian territories.

But a State Department official, commenting on the absence of those words, said: “The policy on the status of the territories has not changed” and the report was focused on human rights issues, not legal terminology.

Palestinians have been concerned about the strength of a long-standing U.S. commitment to the creation of a state of their own in the West Bank and Gaza, a pledge stemming from interim peace deals with Israel signed in the 1990s.

Breaking with a decades-long policy, and drawing Palestinian accusations of pro-Israel bias, President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017. He moved the U.S. Embassy to the contested holy city from Tel Aviv last year.

Commenting on the State Department report, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said new “U.S. labels” for Palestinian lands “will not change the fact that this is occupied territory, in accordance with U.N. resolutions and international law”.

U.S. officials have said Washington will present a new Israeli-Palestinian peace plan after Israel’s April 9 election.

Netanyahu travels to Washington later this month to address the pro-Israeli lobby AIPAC, and Israeli media reports said he also plans to hold talks with Trump, with the Golan recognition issue on the agenda.

Formal U.S. acceptance of Israel’s territorial claim could bolster Netanyahu’s re-election prospects in a closely contested race as he battles corruption allegations, which he denies.

Hours before the U.S. report was released, Israel accused a suspected Lebanese Hezbollah operative who was previously held in Iraq over the killing of five U.S. military personnel of now setting up a guerrilla network on the Syrian-controlled side of the Golan for cross-border attacks.

Reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem and Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Editing by Rami Ayyub and Mark Heinrich

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