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.
Non-international armed conflict
The situation of non-international armed conflict in Syria further complicates the situation. After the temporary detention of 45 UN peacekeepers by members of the al-Nusra Front in August 2014, the UN withdrew its personnel to Israeli-held territory. In 2015 and 2016, the UN continued to report fighting between Syrian government armed forces and non-state armed groups and between non-state armed groups in the separation area. See for example Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force for the Period from 19 November 2015 to 29 February 2016, UN doc S/2016/242, 14 March 2016.
Israeli attacks against Iranian and Syrian military targets in Syria
In May 2018, the Quds Forces, a Special Forces unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, allegedly fired 20 rockets on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights from Syrian. In response, Israel launched a series of attacks against allegedly Iranian military targets in Syria. Some experts believe that attacks to be the most extensive since the two countries signed a disengagement agreement in 1974. Iran denied the accusation and vowed that those attacks will not go unpunished. The Israeli government justified the attack as a respond to Iranian attacks on the Golan Heights. B. McKernan and O. Alabaster, ‘Did Iran attack Israel from Syria and why would they?’, The Independent, 10 May 2018; I. Kershner, ‘Iran Fires Rockets Into Golan Heights From Syria, Israelis Say’, The New York Times, 09 May 2018; ‘Israel responds after Iran ‘fires rockets’ at occupied Golan’, Al-Jazeera, 10 May 2018, I. Kershner, ‘Iran Fires Rockets into Golan Heights From Syria, Israelis Say’, The New York Times, 9 May 2018.
In January 2019, Israel Defence Forces (IDF) struck allegedly Iranian targets in and around the capital Damascus. The targets were a training camp, munitions storage depots, and a site at Damascus International Airport. The Iranian Senior Lawmaker Alaeddin Boroujerdi announced that Iran will respond ‘to the aggression’ of Israel in what is described by experts as a ‘war of words between Israel and Iran.’ In a rare announcement, the Israeli government admitted the strike on Iran-linked forces in Syria. O. Liebermann, ‘Israel strikes Iranian targets in Damascus after missile fired at Golan Heights’, CNN, 22 January 2019; T. Lazaroff, ‘Syria threatens to attack Ben-Gurion, Return to ‘occupied’ Golan’, The Jerusalem Post, 23 January 2019.
Israeli attacks on Syrian territory, targeting Hezbollah, Iranian and Syrian military targets, have continued ever since. For instance, The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that an Israeli air raid near Damascus on 27 April 2022 targeted munitions depots and military presence linked to Iran. ‘Israeli air raids in Syria kills nine: War monitor’, Al Jazeera, 27 April 2022; ‘Israel launches deadly air strikes on ammunition depot, target in Syria’, France 24, 27 April 2022.
It is worth recalling that these military actions are regulated by IHL applicable to international armed conflicts.
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.