WASHINGTON (March 26, 2019) —On March 25, President Donald J. Trump signed an order proclaiming US support for Israel’s annexation of the Golan. This act ended Washington’s opposition to any acquisition of territory by force—a principle that has been a key pillar of the global order since the United Nations was founded in 1945.
It also raised the prospect that Washington’s support for Israel’s other major act of Anschluss (= annexation)—that of Greater East Jerusalem, which Israel announced in 1967—may not be far behind.
This is far from the first time that Trump has upended long-held principles of US foreign policy or international law. But with many still awaiting the long-delayed release of details of his “deal of the century” for Arab-Israeli peace, Trump’s open embrace of Israel’s Anschluss of the Golan just about guarantees that this new peace effort will be dead on arrival, if not aborted before birth.
Governments key to the “deal of the century” having any success or even credibility, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, and the EU, were swift to come out and criticize Trump’s support for the Golan Anschluss.
Washington’s new policy on Golan may well now allow the US company Genie Energy to go ahead and plunder the oil and gas reserves that its Israeli subsidiary discovered in Golan in 2015. (Genie’s “Strategic Advisory Board” includes former VP Dick Cheney, misogynistic Birthright co-founder Michael Steinhardt, and Rupert Murdoch…)
Trump’s step changes the political dynamic within Syria, too.
The Neoconservative Target on Syria
Independent Syria has long been in the cross-hairs of the many Zionist extremists and neoconservatives who wield such power in US politics. Syria has been subjected to US sanctions continuously since 1979. In the mid-1990s, when key neoconservatives released their landmark document on the Middle East, “A Clean Break”, it argued mainly for two policy changes: a “break” from Washington’s longheld support of the principle of “land for peace”, and the overthrow of central government power in Syria.
Syria was for long clearly identified as the neocons’ main target—much more so than Iraq, though in 2002-3 they lined up in droves to push for the invasion of chronically sanctions-weakened Iraq first… with many arguing strongly that the next destination after Baghdad should be Damascus.
When Barack Obama became president in 2009, he was given a good chance to de-escalate the continuing tensions with Syria. I know, because I was part of a discreet “Track Two” effort to achieve this. Obama turned down the opportunity. He rejected the minor, “confidence-building” measures our US-Syrian group had proposed, for both sides, and chose to continue Washington’s generous funding of Syrian oppositionists, instead.
In 2011, those US-funded oppositionists latched onto anti-government protests emerging in some Syrian cities. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were then quick to issue calls for the complete overthrow of the Syrian government. They also (with the CIA’s help) arranged huge amounts of the weapons seized from Libya’s former arsenals to be sent to Syria’s very speedily militarized opposition. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates were also massive participants in this “Syrian Contras” effort; but Washington’s support for the regime-change project in Syria was always also crucial.
Throughout the Obama years, whenever the UN or other bodies proposed a negotiated way to end Syria’s civil war and its horrors, those efforts met with Washington’s blunt and breathtakingly imperialistic insistence that the Syrian president “must leave now,” before there could be any negotiations. Throughout those years, too, jihadi extremists from around the world crossed into Syria to join up with either ISIS (which Washington opposed) or with the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and its many satellites, which had completely taken over Syria’s opposition movement and which Washington was powerless to oppose.
Throughout those years, Israel became increasingly active inside Syria. It provided arms and support to some of the Syrian Contra units fighting in the south of Syria—and it used the air superiority it enjoyed until recently over all of Syria and Lebanon to launch scores of bombing raids against targets deep inside Syria. (The increased military support that Syria has received since late 2015 from its longtime ally, Russia, helped shift the dynamic on the ground in Syria in the government’s favor; and more recently, Russia has also bolstered Syria’s air defenses.)
Throughout the years of Syria’s civil war, Israel became increasingly bold inside occupied Golan as well.
Israel’s Occupation of the Golan
The record of Israel’s occupation of the Golan is generally little known in the West. Golan is a region that runs east from the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, up a steep escarpment, to a broad, fertile plateau skirted by amply rainfed slopes. Before the Israeli military occupied Golan in a surprise maneuver in 1967, it had a population of around 140,000. At and after the time of the IDF’s invasion, some 130,000 of those residents fled or were chased out. You can still see some of their deserted villages along the roads there, today.
In 1968, Israel’s Labour government started building settlements in Golan. At the beginning, they were not viewed as necessarily permanent—more as bargaining chips for a future negotiation. The vast majority of the early settlers there were (unlike those in the West Bank) Labour supporters. They were only too happy to take their families to those beautiful plateaus whose long-established cherry and apple orchards and vineyards were all there for the easy picking…
The small number of Golani Syrians who resolutely stayed in their homes were nearly all residents of five predominantly Druze villages clustered on the slopes of Jebel Al-Shaikh (sometimes known as “Mount Hermon”). When I visited Golan in 1998, some of the elders told me they had abiding folk memories of the uprising the Druze had launched against the French in 1927. They said their community had learned then that staying in place during surrounding strife is nearly always the best policy.
Today, there are some 25,000 Syrian citizens still living in occupied Golan, along with roughly the same number of Israeli settlers. The Israeli settlements are spread out broadly across the stolen lands of the departed Syrians, while the “occupied” Syrians have their access to land and water sharply curtailed.
As for the large numbers of Syrians displaced in 1967, they had fled deeper into Syria. Since they never crossed an international border they were known as “internally displaced people” (IDP’s, or in Arabic nazeheen) and they never showed up on any UN rosters as “refugees.” Today, they and their descendants number some 700,000. They all still have deeds and keys to the homes and farms they were displaced from in 1967.
In 1981, the Israeli Knesset formally annexed Golan. The following year, the Israeli authorities tried to force the “occupied” Syrian citizens still living in Golan to take Israeli citizenship. The Golani Syrians refused. But they’ve had Israel’s “Druze education” system and numerous other onerous regulations forced onto them.
The Israeli military also has numerous bases in the Golan. In some of these, it almost certainly stores nuclear-capable “Jericho-2” missiles. From others, perched high on Jebel al-Shaikh, it is capable of looking deep into all the rest of Syria.
The Global Response?
Trump’s decision to give official US support to Israel’s Anschluss in Golan was almost certainly intended as a big political gift to Benjamin Netanyahu as he enters the final weeks of Israel’s current election. It is a gift, too, of course, to all the rapacious investors and resource-thieves lining up with Genie Energy (and the settler-run “Golani” winemakers) who are only too eager to make mega-profits from Golan’s looted natural bounty.
The big question, regarding this latest strong pro-Israel lurch in US policy as with Trump’s earlier decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, is what the rest of the global community will do about it?
We know the Security Council will be shamefully unable to act on this matter because of Washington’s veto. But what can other parts of the UN, other international institutions (including financial institutions), other governments, and international civil society do to hamper the plots of Genie Engineering and its associated, and to protect the rights of the Golani Syrians who still live in Golan, the Golani Syrians exiled from it—and the rest of Syria’s citizens who have the right to have a country that is whole, free, and at peace?
A good first step is to commit to learning about Syria’s history and current situation in its own terms, rather than in the cartoonish, “demonic” way they have been portrayed in most of the Western discourse for far too long. Another is to be sure to include the issue of Golan and protecting the rights of the Syrian Golanis in all the efforts of the worldwide BDS movement.
And just as legal steps are now being taken against those entities profiting off resources stolen from within the West Bank, so too should extensive legal measures be launched against all entities stealing resources from Golan. International law demands no less. (Indeed, in the face of Trump’s blatant lawbreaking, it demands far more.)
Helena Cobban is the President of Just World Educational (JWE), a non-profit organization, and the CEO of Just World Books. She has had a lengthy career as a journalist, writer, and researcher on international affairs, including 17 years as a columnist on global issues for The Christian Science Monitor. Of the seven books she’s published on international affairs, four have been on Middle Eastern topics. This new series of commentaries she’s writing, “Story/Backstory”, will have an expanded audio component published in JWE’s podcast series. They represent her own opinion and judgments, not those of any organization.
“Trump’s Golan Heights Tweet Disregards History, Law and Ethics”
(March 24, 2019) — “On March 22, 2019, President Donald Trump unceremoniously tweeted that the United States would recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Syrian Golan Heights. He explained that such sovereignty ‘is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and regional stability.’ Everything about this tweet is wrong —as a matter of law, policy and fact.
“The Golan Heights, located in the southwest of Syria, was seized by Israel during the 1967 War when, in the course of six days, Israel also came to control Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula as well as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The United Nations, which was in session during the war, deliberated the matter for nearly six months. Controversy revolved around whether Israel should be compelled to withdraw from the Arab territories immediately or whether it could, as the Lyndon B. Johnson administration urged, be able to retain them as consideration in exchange for permanent peace. Despite Syrian and Palestinian opposition, in 1967 the Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 242, which established the land-for-peace framework sought by the United States and Israel that declared that the territories would be returned in exchange for permanent peace.
“The Resolution proved ineffective due to a lack of political will to establish peace together with Israel’s desire to retain the territories. The Israeli government developed this legal argument: Because no sovereign existed in the West Bank and Gaza —Egypt and Jordan never had legitimate title and Palestinians were not sovereigns —no country could claim better title to the territory than could Israel. Thus, Israeli officials argued, the West Bank and Gaza could not be occupied as a matter of law and are better described as ‘disputed’ rather than occupied territories. This novel legal argument enabled Israel to establish legal presence as a military authority in the Palestinian territory adhering strictly to Occupation Law, most notably its proscription on civilian settlement. This enabled Israel to fulfill its settler-colonial territorial ambitions by incrementally taking Palestinian lands under the framework of military necessity without the Palestinian people on them.
“Unlike the Palestinian territories, the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights were never disputed as no one questioned Egyptian and Syrian sovereignty, respectively. Still, even there, Israel refused to recognize the territory as occupied as a matter of law. The framework established by UNSC Resolution 242 proved untenable and in October 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel in the hopes of recouping their territories. While Israel ultimately prevailed in the war, Egypt and Syria won psychologically.
“Their victory compelled the passage of Security Council Resolution 338, which established a ceasefire and catalyzed a US-led Middle East Peace Process to return the Arab territories for peace. Palestinians would not be recognized as legitimate representatives to negotiate the return of the West Bank and Gaza until 1991 and Syria continued to object to the terms of negotiations, which legitimated Israel’s defensive claims in the region and prioritized its rejection of Palestinian sovereignty.
“In 1979, Israel and Egypt, the largest Arab country, agreed to the Camp David Accords, which facilitated the return of the Sinai to Egypt and normalized Egyptian-Israeli relations. Significantly, the Accords signaled that no Arab army would wage a conventional war against Israel as Egypt had established permanent peace and Syria would not go to war alone.
“Two years later, in 1981, Israel unilaterally annexed the Golan Heights. The Ronald Reagan administration rebuked Israel’s annexation and declared it ‘null and void,’ not least because it violates the international principle prohibiting the acquisition of territory by force. Since the early 1990s, Israel and Syria have engaged in several peace talks over the Golan Heights but they have each crumbled over Israel’s refusal to return to the 1967 lines. Doing so would mean relinquishing Israel’s access to a key water source in the Sea of Galilee, which provides the country with one-third of its fresh water supply.
“President Trump’s announcement earlier this week disregards this history, relevant international law, as well as long-standing US policy.
“The Trump administration, together with Israel, has claimed that the Golan Heights serve a security interest, but that is plainly untrue. Israel has established 34 settlements in the Golan Heights and settled nearly 20,000 Israeli civilians. If indeed the territory is a defensive buffer against Syrian attack, then Israel is using its own civilian population as a human shield. And if it is safe for the civilians to live there, then it is not a defensive buffer.
“More, Israel maintains nearly 167 businesses in the Golan Heights, including the only ski resort available to Israelis. Additionally, Jordan established permanent peace with Israel in 1994 and so, along with Egypt, poses no military threat; Syria has not waged war since 1973; and the two other countries that have historically threatened Israel — Libya and Iraq — have both been decimated in US-led or supported wars. Hezbollah, whom Israel claims is a proxy military force for Iran, has not even initiated war from Lebanon, where it is based, even after the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon in 2000. The one large-scale war since then was initiated by Israel after Hezbollah conducted a cross-border raid to capture three Israeli soldiers it intended to exchange for Hezbollah prisoners of war. There is no credible military threat to Israel from Syria’s southern border.
“The primary reason for the US announcement is domestic: Trump is speaking to his evangelical base, which covets Israel as a matter of prophecy and ideology. American Evangelicals consider the in-gathering of a global Jewry in Israel as the prerequisite element to beget Armageddon and the return of Christ. Ideologically, they consider Israel as the eastern-most front in the US’s so-called war on terror stemming not only attacks but, perhaps more significantly, the migration of Muslims to the West.
“The announcement is a boon for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is mired in fraud and corruption allegations only three weeks ahead of Israeli elections. Trump’s announcement serves as an effective deflection from his domestic problems and tells a center-right Israeli base that voting for him means fulfilling Israel’s territorial ambitions. Israeli society considers the Golan Heights to be part of Israel. Trump’s announcement at the height of a tense campaign signals that a vote for Netanyahu is a vote for strongman Trump, who disdains international law and diplomacy in favor of a policy of ‘might makes right.’
“The effect of Trump’s announcement is contingent upon the international response. Trump certainly has the executive authority to recognize the Golan Heights as part of Israel’s sovereignty, even in contravention of international law, but US recognition is not tantamount to a shift in the territory’s status quo. So far there has been broad denunciation of the US’s announcement, from the United Nations and among several states including Egypt and Russia. While that condemnation is welcome, it is also not enough.
“It is crucial that the international community demonstrate its opposition in the form of more coercive sanctions, but such a response is unlikely if the tacit acceptance of the US’s embassy move to Jerusalem is any indication. Indeed, in May 2017, the Trump administration moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in similar contravention of Security Council Resolution 242, disregarding the principle prohibiting the acquisition of territory by force.
“Although 128 countries condemned the US move in a UN resolution, and few other countries followed suit and moved their embassies, Israel has faced no consequences for its ongoing settlement of East Jerusalem and the ethnic cleansing of its Palestinian inhabitants. In fact, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited the Western Wall in East Jerusalem last week —the first for a US official — reifying the US’s policy shift in a similar bid to support Netanyahu’s re-election campaign.
“This abysmal situation underscores the urgency of a global boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, which at least since 2005 has been a grassroots effort to overcome diplomatic intransigence. We must remember that this is not just about Israel but also about the US’s imperial wars in the Middle East, its attack on internationalism (i.e., threats against the International Criminal Court and pulling out of the Paris Climate Protocol) as well as its ongoing structural violence against minorities, Indigenous nations, refugees and women in the United States. Israel is part of a broader constellation constituting US interests the world over.
“Trump’s Golan Heights announcement is not just a threat to the Middle East — it’s a threat to the whole world because it reifies policies of racial supremacy and fascism. The response to it should be similarly global among people who oppose these violent trends in their communities and across the world.”
Noura Erakat is a human rights attorney and Assistant Professor at George Mason University. She is the author of Justice for Some: Law in the Question of Palestine (Stanford University Press, 2019).
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.