J Street Deplores State Department Dropping “Occupied Territories” from Human Rights Report

April 23, 2018

J Street deplores the fact that the State Department, in its annual report on human rights around the world, is no longer describing the West Bank, Gaza or the Golan Heights as “occupied territories.” This change will clearly be interpreted as encouragement by right-wing political forces in Israel advocating for the annexation of part or all of the West Bank, particularly in light of President Trump’s refusal to endorse a two-state solution.

The State Department is mandated by Congress to produce a report every year examining human rights in every country in the world. In previous years, under Republican and Democratic administrations, there was always one chapter entitled “Israel and the Occupied Territories” divided into two parts. The first dealt with Israel and Israeli-annexed Golan Heights[1], the second, under the title “The Occupied Territories” dealt with the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In the latest report released last week examining the human rights record of 2017, the title was changed to “Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank and Gaza.” The internal division of the report remains the same: one section on Israel and the Golan Heights and a second on the West Bank and Gaza. The term “occupied territories” only appears once in the text.

This change in nomenclature is clearly a case of political meddling by the Trump Administration designed to change the long-standing US policy of supporting a two-state solution to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. State Department officials have been quoted as saying that the change is catching up with what is now standard practice in the Trump Administration. But it is a change which flies in the face of international law and has potentially dire consequences for Israel, the Palestinians and the wider region.

Israeli ultra-nationalists, who have a powerful presence in the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are certain to interpret this change as a green light to build more settlements and continue their policy of creeping annexation of wide swathes of the West Bank, a policy that will ultimately force Israel to choose between remaining a democracy or maintaining its identity as a Jewish homeland.

It is somewhat reassuring to see that the content of the report itself remains objective and professional. It points to many worrying aspects of Israel’s human rights performance, including its treatment of prisoners and detainees, its occasional use of arbitrary arrests, the demolitions of Arab and Bedouin villages and its treatment of African migrants and refugees.

The chapter on the West Bank and Gaza also documents many instances of human rights shortcomings and abuses by the Palestinian authorities in those areas.


[1]Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 war and annexed the territory in 1981. Its annexation has not been internationally recognized and was declared “null and void” by UN Security Council Resolution 463. Nonetheless, there is some logic in dealing with the human rights situation there in the same chapter as Israel since Israeli law applies in the territory.