Since June 1967, Israel has occupied the Golan Heights, over which Syria is recognised as sovereign.
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 occupation of the Golan Heights started in 1967 with the victory of Israel during the Six Days War against the neighbour Arab countries of Jordan, Egypt and Syria supported by Iraq and Russia. In particular, the Golan Heights were occupied on the 10th of June, at the end of the conflict and most of the Syrian inhabitants of the territory left the region (some spontaneously, and some forced by the Israeli forces). The remaining population belonged to the Druze minority (an Arab minority of Druze religion). A. Bregman, La Vittoria Maledetta: Storia di Israele e dei Territori Occupati (Einaudi 2017), pp. 3-98. Immediately after the occupation, the Israeli government started to build several settlements in the Golan Heights and a significant portion of the Jewish population moved to the territory. S. Gazit, The Carrot and the Stick: Israel’s Policy in Judaea and Samaria, 1967-68 (B’nai B’rith Books, 1995) at 159; G., Gorenberg, The Accidental Empire, Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977 (Times Books, 2006) Chapter 3.
In 1973 the Yom Kippur War broke out in the territory, as a response to the occupation from the coalition of Syrian and Egyptian forces. Notably, Syria attempted to regain control of the Golan Heights, but Israel won the war again and captured the city of Quneitra. The following year, the two countries signed the “Agreement on Disengagement.” As part of the agreement, the city of Quneitra was returned to Syria. Furthermore, the the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 350 (1974) and created a buffer zone with the permanent presence of the UNDOF peacekeeping mission (United Nations Disengagement Observer Force). The UNDOF mission is still present in the territory, being one of the longest peacekeeping operations ever implemented. A. Rabinovich, ‘The Yom Kippur War’, The New York Times, 15 February 2004; T. Smith, ‘The October War Changed Everything’, The New York Times, 30 December 1973; E. R. Fetterly, ‘UNDOF: The Catalyst for Peace Building on the Golan Heights’, National Defence Headquaters, Strategic Finance and Economics Section, Canada, 2002, pp. 83-98.
Israeli settlements started shortly after the Six-Day War. Today, an estimated 21.0000 Israeli settlers live in 33 settlements in the occupied Syrian Golan. The area of the Golan Heights currently held by Israel is approximately 1,200 km2. See Report of the Secretary-General on Israeli Settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and in the Occupied Syrian Golan, UN doc A/HRC/31/43, §64.
In its Resolution 497 (1981), the United Nations (UN) Security Council decided that ‘the Israeli decision to impose its laws, jurisdiction and administration in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights is null and void, and without international legal effect.’ The UN General Assembly repeatedly reaffirmed that ‘all legislative and administrative measures taken or to be taken by Israel, the occupying Power, that purport to alter the character and legal status of the occupied Syrian Golan are null and void,’ most recently in General Assembly Resolution 70(91). Syria requests a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 border and return of the Golan Heights as part of any peace deal. See also Report of the Secretary-General on the Occupied Syrian Golan, UN Doc. A/69/327, 19 August 2014, §6. Between 1987 and 2007, negotiations took place between Syria and Israel. Nevertheless, However, those negotiations never led to an agreement between the parties. Following the discontinuance of the indirect peace talks with Turkey acting as a mediator in December 2008, there have been no negotiations between Israel and Syria since then. G. Golan, Israeli Peacemaking since 1967: Factors behind the Breakthroughs and Failures (Routledge 2015), pp. 57-93.
While the UN as well as the international community have not recognized the occupation of Syria by Israel, on 25 March 2019, US President Trump has officially recognized Israel sovereignty over the Golan Heights. While Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has welcomed the US decision and has affirmed that Israel ‘shall never give up’ as it ‘won the Golan Heights in a just war of self-defence and the Jewish people's roots in the Golan go back thousands of years’, the vast majority of the international community condemned the US decision. Notably, a spokesman for the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres reiterated that the status of the Golan Heights has not changed. Furthermore, Russia has warned that the recognition has the potential to trigger a new wave of tensions in the region. ‘Golan Heights: Trump signs order recognising occupied area as Israeli’, BBC News, 25 March 2019; ‘Trump formally recognises Israeli sovereignty over Golan Heights’, Al-Jazeera, 25 March 2019. Following the US recognition, the Israeli Prime Minister changed the name of a settlement, currently known as “Bruchim”, to “Ramat Trump” (i.e. “Trump Heights”). The town has a population of 10 people, On 16 June, Netanyahu and Friedman unveiled a sign trimmed in gold with the name “Trump Heights”, adorned with US and Israeli flags. ‘Israel names illegal Golan settlement after Trump’, Al-Jazeera, 17 June 2019. It is worth noting that the current Biden administration has not reversed former President Trump's recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Ali Harb, ‘Three years on, US still views Syria’s Golan as Israeli territory’, Al Jazeera, 25 March 2022.
In addition, the development of Israel’s “Clean Wind Energy Project” negatively impacts Syrian residents as it will be built on agricultural lands and has potential effects on health and the environment. Israel has not sought approval from the potential affected residents. A/HRC/43/67, ‘Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan’, UN, 30 January 2020; A/HRC/46/65, ‘Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan’, UN, 15 February 2021. The project was met with a protest of 300 Syrians in December 2020 but Israel commenced the project in January 2021 in the Golan Heights. A/76/336, ‘Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and the occupied Syrian Golan’, UN, 23 September 2021. The project has resulted in the confiscation of over 6 km2 of Syrian land and another 4 km2 of agricultural land in addition to impacting the health of residents. A/HRC/52/76, ‘Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan’, UN, 15 March 2023.
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.