WASHINGTON — The U.S. State Department referred to the Golan Heights as "Israeli-controlled territory" in its annual human rights report for 2018, released Wednesday. This is a change compared to the language used by previous administrations, which referred to the area as "occupied territory."
A separate section on the West Bank and Gaza Strip — areas that Israel captured along with the Golan Heights during the Six-Day War in 1967 — also did not refer to those territories as being "occupied" or under "occupation."
In last year's State Department report on human rights, the administration dropped the term "occupied territories" from the headline, but referred to the Golan Heights and the West Bank as "occupied" inside the text itself. The main change in this year's report is the scrubbing of the word "occupied" from the text itself.
A State Department source said Wednesday that "our policy on the Golan Heights has not changed. We retitled the human rights report to refer to the commonly used geographic names of the area the report covers."
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Israel captured the Golan Heights, which is populated largely by Druze communities, in 1967 and officially annexed the territory in a 1981 law. The international community does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the area, but the ongoing conflict in Syria has complicated the matter of ownership. Assad-aligned forces, including Hezbollah and Iran-backed militias, regularly clash with rebel forces on the Syrian side of the de-facto border. The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force oversees the cease-fire line.
On Monday, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham visited the Golan Heights alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, and revealed plans to work toward American recognition of the Golan Heights as part of Israel.
"Working with Sen. [Ted] Cruz, I will start an effort to recognize the Golan as part of the State of Israel now and forever," Graham said.
"Israel occupied this territory by fighting for its survival," the senator added. This territory was taken by military force because it was used as a launching point to attack the State of Israel. This territory has a rich Jewish history."
Graham also asked to whom the stretch of territory would be returned if Israel were to give it up. "Who do you give it back to, Assad?" Graham asked, noting that Iran and Russia are deeply invested in the territory. "Russia? I believe not."
Graham said he would speak to President Donald Trump on the matter of recognizing the territory as Israeli.
Reuters contributed to this report.