The US State Department has released its annual human rights report, and it included one notable omission: any mention of the word “occupied” in relation to the Palestinian Territories, a change that further signals the Trump administration’s shifting lines on the conflict.
The department changed the section of the report that used to be listed as “Israel and the Occupied Territories” to “Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank, and Gaza”, altering decades of US foreign policy.
The document that covers 2017 was released on Friday and details human rights abuses by the Israeli military, Palestinian militant group Hamas and the Palestinian Authority that presides over the West Bank, and much of it is the same as previous years.
But the word choice is reflective of the US government’s new thinking in regard to Israel’s presence in Gaza and the West Bank.
Ahmad Majdalani, an executive member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) said the State Department was “attempting to abolish the depiction of occupation from these territories, which affirms US complicity with the occupation”. He said the US decision, alongside other moves in favour of Israel, “discredit it and its team for the political process.”
The language removal comes at a time when Israel is facing international censure for its shooting and killing of Palestinians participating in weekly rounds of protests in Gaza ahead of next month’s Nakba Day, the commemoration of what they consider to be their national day of “disaster”.
On Friday, Israeli forces shot and killed four Palestinians protesting along the enclave’s shared border with Israel, including teenage boy Mohammed Ayyoub who officials say was 15-years-old. Palestinian photographer Abed Alhakeem Abu Rish told the Associated Press that Ayyoub was 150 meters from the border fence and unarmed when he was shot and killed.
Israel blamed Hamas – which presides over Gaza – for his death, alleging he was being used as a “human shield”. It says many of the 32 people killed in the last four weeks are members of Palestinian militant groups trying to breach the border fence. Hamas had called for the weekly rallies, but rights groups say many of those killed and injured are unarmed civilian protesters.
But the European Union and Nikolay Mladenov, the UN envoy on the Middle East peace process, called for a full investigation into Friday’s shootings. The Palestinians say they will request the UN Human Rights Council establish a commission to independently probe the killings. They say any investigation carried out by Israel would lack credibility and transparency. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said in a statement released Saturday that “it’s time for the International Criminal Court to begin a serious judicial investigation into these crimes committed against the Palestinian people”.
The US earlier this month blocked a draft UN resolution that would have condemned Israel for the killing of protesters. A Palestinian spokesperson accused the US government of siding with “the Israeli occupation army against our defenseless people”. So the new terminology in the annual human rights report is but one of many blows the Palestinians have suffered from Washington in their bid for national independence.
The document includes just two mentions of the word “occupied”, one in reference to the Golan Heights, a territory that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, and the other in a quote. The previous year’s report included 19 mentions of the word “occupied,” many of them in reference to the Palestinian Territories. The international community regards East Jerusalem and the West Bank to be occupied territories. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but maintains a blockade of the enclave.
Observers say the language removal points to another embrace of Israeli positions by the Trump administration that has announced that it will move its embassy to Jerusalem in defiance of Arab protests, allowed Israel to build its first new settlement for two decades and that has remained silent on wider settlement building.
"The decision by the US State Department to remove the term occupied territory from its 2017 human rights report is yet one more example of the Trump administration’s backsliding on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," said Hugh Lovatt, Middle East and North Africa policy fellow at the London-based European Council on Foreign Relations.
"Since assuming office, President Trump and his administration have distanced themselves from the two-state solution, rolled back US commitment on Palestinian statehood on the 1967 lines as the ultimate outcome of peace negotiations, and largely turned a blind eye to Israeli settlement building," he continued. "Such measures only push further away any lasting resolution to the conflict”.
The change comes after Mr Trump’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, reportedly told the State Department in December to refrain from referring to the West Bank as “occupied”. The report indicates the first public acceptance of that demand.
Mr Friedman, an architect of the US embassy move to Jerusalem announced in December, is viewed in Washington as the most pro-Israel envoy the country has ever had. He has funded projects in the hardline West Bank settlement of Beit El and is a vocal supporter of the outposts deemed illegal by the majority of the international community.
In September he said that he believed “the settlements are part of Israel”, a comment that went against official US government policy on the issue. Right-wing, nationalist Jews believe that the settlements are built on ancient, biblical lands. The Palestinians say it is their ancestral land.
A section of the report also listed alleged violations by Israeli authorities and forces, including home demolitions, improper interrogation techniques and restrictions on Palestinian freedom of protest.
On Jerusalem, the report says “problems primarily related to Palestinian residents of Jerusalem” are dealt with in the “West Bank and Gaza” section of the report.
But the report maintained that the final status of the holy city was still to be decided in talks between both sides. Palestinians seek East Jerusalem as the capital of any future state, while Israel believes Jerusalem to be its undivided capital.
“On December 6, 2017, the United States recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” the report reads.
“It is the position of the United States that the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final status negotiations between the parties."