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Military occupation of Syria by Israel

Conflict type: Military occupation

Since June 1967, Israel has occupied the Golan Heights, over which Syria is recognised as sovereign.

Since 1967 Israel has occupied the Golan Heights, an area internationally recognised as forming part of Syria.

The international and non-international armed conflicts in Syria have repeatedly spilled over into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. As a result, both Syrian and Israeli forces have repeatedly violated the 1974 Agreement, see for example Report of the Secretary General on the United Nations Disengagement Force for the Period from 2 March to 16 May 2017, UN doc S/2017/486, 8 June 2017; Report of the Secretary General on the United Nations Disengagement Force for the Period from 1 March to 20 May 2016, UN doc S/2016/520, 8 June 2016. Israel previously carried out missile and airstrikes inside Syrian territory, including in order to prevent the transfer of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah. Examples include the downing of a Syrian warplane that had entered the airspace of the Golan Heights in September 2014, see ‘Israel Shoots Down Syrian Warplane’, CBS/Associated Press, 23 September 2014; the bombing of Syrian army positions in March 2014, December 2014, and September 2015, see L. Smith-Spark and M. Schwartz, ‘Israel Retaliates in Syria After Roadside Bomb Attack Against Israeli Troops’, CNN, 19 March 2014; P. Beaumont, ‘Israeli Jets Bomb Syria, Says Damascus’, The Guardian, 7 December 2014; ‘Israel Strikes Syria After Stray Rockets Land in Golan’, Al Jazeera, 28 September 2015; and a series of bombings believed to aim to prevent the transfer of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah, for example in March 2013 and in November 2016, see ‘Israel Bombs Hezbollah-bound Missiles in Syria: Official’, Reuters, 4 May 2013; ‘Israeli Airstrikes Hit Damascus Outskirts, Syrian Reports Says’, The Guardian/Associated Press, 30 November 2016; P. Beaumont, 'Israel Reported to Have Bombed Syrian Chemical Weapons Facility', The Guardian, 7 September 2017.

On February 11, Israel launched its largest scale aerial attacks inside Syria so far. After claiming to have intercepted an Iranian drone crossing the Syrian-Israeli border, Israeli fighter planes attacked a Syrian military base. During the attack, an Israeli fighter plane was shut down by Syrian air defence. In response, Israel launched attacks targeting Syrian air defences. A. Taylor, 'Israel Has Taken Its Biggest Step Into the Syrian War Yet. What Does that Mean?', The Washington Post, 10 February 2018; L. Sly and L. Morris, 'Syria's War Mutates Into a Regional Conflict, Risking a Wider Conflagration', The Washington Post, 12 February 2012; A. Carey, L. Smith-Spart and N. Chavez, 'Israeli PM: Airstrikes Dealt "Severe Blows" to Iran, Syria', CNN, 11 February 2018: 'Damascus Warns Israel of "More Surprises" in Syria', Reuters, 13 February 2018;  R. Bergman,  'The Middle East's Coming War', The New York Times, 12 February 2018. The use of force by Israel against Syria amounts to a short-lived international armed conflict. The threshold for an international armed conflict is very low. Whenever there is a resort to hostile armed force between two states, there is an international armed conflict. For further information, see 'international armed conflict - a low threshold' in our classification section. Iran backs the Syrian government, but denied that it was an Iranian drone. O. Holmes and S.K. Dehghan, 'Israel and Iran Consider Next Move After Syrian Clash Crosses Red Line', The Guardian, 12 February 2018; 'Iran Sneers at Reports of Israel Downing Iranian Drone: State TV', Reuters, 10 February 2018. Similarly, Iran consistently denies direct military involvement in the armed conflicts in Syria although it acknowledges the presence of military advisory to train and assist government forces and government-allied militia. However, such capacity building activities do not render Iran a party to the conflicts in Syria. For further information on who is a party to the armed conflict, see 'contemporary challenges - who is a party to an armed conflict' in our classification section.

For a territory to be considered occupied, it must be 'under the authority of the hostile army.' Article 42, 1907 Hague Convention (IV) Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its Annex: Regulations Concerning the Laws and Customs on Land. For an occupation to exist, hostile foreign forces must exercise effective control. Three elements must be fulfilled for effective control to exist.

  • First, the armed forces of a foreign state are physically present in the territory and the territorial state did not consent to their presence.
  • Second, the presence of the foreign forces prevents the effective local government in place at the time of invasion from exercising its powers.
  • Third, the foreign forces establish their own authority. For further information, see ‘military occupation – elements of occupation’ in our classification section.

The area of the Golan Heights currently held by Israel is approximately 1,200 km2. In 1974, Syria and Israel signed a ceasefire agreement, monitored by the United Nations Disengagement Force (UNDOF). UNDOF was set up by UNSC Res 350. Further information on its mandate and activities can be found on its website. From 1967 to 1981, the Golan Heights remained under Israeli military administration. In 1981, in violation of the 1974 ceasefire agreement signed with Syria, Israel passed the Golan Heights Law Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ‘Golan Heights Law, extending Israeli law, jurisdiction and governmental apparatus to the Golan Heights. The move, which resulted in a unilateral annexation of the territory, was not recognised internationally. In resolution 497 (1981), the United Nations Security Council condemned the decision, ‘which is null and void and without international legal effect’ and demanded that ‘Israel, the occupying Power, should rescind forthwith its decision’. UNSC Res 497, 17 December 1981, §§1-2. The United Nations General Assembly repeatedly called on Israel as the occupying power to comply with resolution 497 (1981). For recent examples, see UNGA Res 68/84, 16 December 2013; UNGA Res 71/99, 23 December 2016. The area is currently administered as part of Israel's Northern District.

The law of military occupation is set out in the 1907 Hague Convention (IV) Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its Annex: Regulations Concerning the Laws and Customs on Land, the 1949 Geneva Conventions (IV) Relative to the Protection of Civilians Persons in Time of War and the 1977 Additional Protocol I applicable to International Armed Conflicts. Israel and Syria are parties to the four 1949 Geneva Conventions, but only Syria is a party to the 1977 Additional Protocol I.

Customary international humanitarian law is also applicable during occupation, it complements the protection granted by treaties and binds all parties to the conflict. Customary international law consists of unwritten rules that come from a general practice accepted as law. Based on an extensive study, the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains a database on customary international humanitarian law.

In addition to international humanitarian law, international human rights law continues to apply during times of occupation. Israel and Syria are parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights. Israel remains bound by its international human rights law obligations in the territory it occupies.

Last updated: Monday 4th February 2019