Territorial Issues Concerning the Arab-Israeli Conflict

On the Status of the Golan Heights

On 25 March 2019, the President of the United States (US), Mr Donald Trump, issued a Presidential Proclamation recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. The text of the Proclamation clarifies that the main reason behind this decision was Israeli security. More specifically, the relevant part of the text reads:

The State of Israel took control of the Golan Heights in 1967 to safeguard its security from external threats. Today, aggressive acts by Iran and terrorist groups, including Hizballah, in southern Syria continue to make the Golan Heights a potential launching ground for attacks on Israel. Any possible future peace agreement in the region must account for Israel’s need to protect itself from Syria and other regional threats. Based on these unique circumstances, it is therefore appropriate to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.[1]

This decision, which reversed existing US policy on the question, made the US the first and, as of June 2020, only State to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the territory that Israel has held since 1967. Indeed, the rest of the international community has not recognized the Golan Heights as an integral part of Israel on the basis that international law prohibits the forcible acquisition of territories and, accordingly, prescribes a specific duty not to recognize as legal a factual situation brought about in violation of this prohibition. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) issued various resolutions on the question, such as Resolution 242, adopted in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, and Resolution 497, adopted after the ratification of the Golan Heights Law by the Israeli Government.[2] Both these resolutions reaffirm that the acquisition of territory by force is inadmissible pursuant to both the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law.[3] Against this background, many States voiced their objections to the US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the territory in question. For instance, the representative of the United Kingdom, at the UNSC meeting convened on 27 March 2019, after having clarified that her country’s position on the status of the Golan Heights had not changed, reaffirmed that the annexation of territory by force is prohibited under international law and that States have a duty not to recognize the annexation of territory by force. Therefore, she clarified that the US decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan heights is in contravention with Resolution 497.[4]

Similar views were expressed by Kuwait, Poland, Russia, Peru, Dominican Republic, Belgium, Germany, South Africa, China, Equatorial Guinea, Indonesia, and France,[5] while the representative of the US reiterated the need to ensure Israeli security.[6] The US move was also condemned by many regional organizations and groups, such as the European Union,[7] the Non-Aligned Movement,[8] and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.[9]

On 12 April 2019, before the Chamber of Deputies (162nd Meeting, XVIII Legislature), the Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Mr Manlio Di Stefano, replied to an urgent interpellation on the issue and stated that

The Government reiterates – as, among other things, the President of the Republic Mattarella has already done in a very clear manner – its full adherence to the European Union’s position on the sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

Indeed, this position has been reiterated on 27 March also by the High Representative of the Union and Vice-President of the European Commission, Federica Mogherini, who, speaking on behalf of the 28 Member States, reminded that, in line with international law and with United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 497, the European Union does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights.

On the Status of Jerusalem and the Borders Between Israel and Palestine

As is well known, the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights was not the first decision of the Trump administration concerning the territorial aspects of the Arab–Israeli conflict, as it was preceded by the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem and the subsequent recognition of the latter as capital of Israel, as well as by other decisions arguably detrimental to the Palestinian people.[10] While the relocation of the embassy, too, was met with harsh criticisms, a few Governments did announce their intention to take similar decisions.[11] Therefore, the authors of the abovementioned interpellation asked the Government to take a stance also on the status of Jerusalem. At the same meeting of 12 April 2019, Mr Di Stefano reiterated the position that Italy had already expressed in 2017[12] and linked this issue to the more general one of the borders between Israel and Palestine. More specifically, he stated:

As regards Jerusalem, the Government maintains that, in line with the parameters widely accepted by the international community for a solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, the definition of its status falls within the final issues to be negotiated by the parties.

Consequently, Italy will not recognize any unilateral change to the demarcation lines preceding 4 June 1967. The same goes for Jerusalem, which, as far as we and the international community are concerned, remains the capital of both States and of major significance for both peoples, and, as reiterated by the President of the Republic Mattarella, remains the capital, so to speak, of the three monotheistic religions, and therefore holds strategic importance for the stability of the region.[13]

Mr Di Stefano concluded his reply by reaffirming the need to ensure Israeli security – which Italy has never put into question[14] – along with the need to respect international law:

The commitment of our country in the Middle East remains oriented towards the promotion, with a constructive spirit, of the stabilization of the region, which, from the Italian perspective, cannot obviously leave out of consideration the security needs of Israel, as well as the respect of human rights and international law vis-à-vis the Palestinian people.

In September 2019, the announcement by the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Benjamin Netanyahu, of the possible annexation of parts of the West Bank[15] prompted the Italian Government to restate its position over these territorial issues by means of a Joint Statement that reads:

France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom are deeply concerned about the announcement of a possible annexation of areas in the West Bank, particularly the Jordan valley and the northern shore of the Dead Sea. This would, if implemented, constitute a serious breach of international law. France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom will continue to call on all parties to refrain from actions in contravention of international law which would imperil the viability of a two-state solution, based on the 1967 lines, and make it harder to achieve a just and lasting peace. We are clear about Israel’s right to security and strongly condemn recent attacks on Israel from Gaza.[16]

On 13 November 2019, the newly appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Mr Luigi Di Maio, intervened before a joint session (7th Meeting, XVIII Legislature) of the Commission on Foreign and European Affairs (III) of the Chamber of Deputies and the Commission on Foreign Affairs, Emigration (3rd) of the Senate of the Republic to outline the approach of his Ministry. Mr Di Maio was asked by a Member of Parliament whether the new Government was endorsing the traditional Italian stance of non-recognizing Palestine until its dispute with Israel will be settled by mutual agreement.[17] However, the Minister did not explicitly address this issue. He stated:

As regards the conflict in the Middle East, this Government is oriented towards the two-State solution. We condemn any kind of violence and Israel has the right to defend itself. […] Our intention, as European Union, is to support the mediation efforts by Egypt because, personally, I think it is very important that there is a mediator who is able to exert maximum influence in this moment.

It is worthwhile to add that Mr Di Maio, on 5 December 2019, at a meeting with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Palestinian National Authority, Mr Riyad al-Malki, reiterated that Italy considers, as does the United Nations, that the Israeli settlements are illegal and supports the two-State solution as the only way to ensure lasting peace. It follows that on no occasion has Italy deviated from its traditional policy towards the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, a policy which takes into account, on the one hand, the prohibition of forcible territorial acquisition as well as the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and, on the other hand, the right of Israel to exist and to defend itself.[18]

[1] The full text of the Proclamation is available here. Right before signing it, President Trump reiterated that Israeli security was the main reason behind the proclamation.

[2] The Golan Heights Law extended Israeli law, jurisdiction, and administration to the Golan Heights. This law is widely considered as an act of annexation. See generally Maoz, “Application of Israeli Law to the Golan Heights Is Annexation”, Brooklyn Journal of International Law, 1994, p. 355 ff. Supporters of the opposite view are a minority: see, e.g., Sheleff, “Application of Israeli Law to the Golan Heights Is Not Annexation”, Brooklyn Journal of International Law, 1994, p. 333 ff.

[3] While UNSC Resolution S/RES/242 (1967), para. 1(i), referred generically to the “[w]ithdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict”, UNSC Resolution S/RES/497 (1981) referred specifically to the Golan Heights. The relevant part of this resolution reads as follows: “The Security Council […] 1. Decides 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; 2. Demands that Israel, the occupying Power, should rescind forthwith its decision; 3. Determines that all the provisions of the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, of 12 August 1949, continue to apply to the Syrian territory occupied by Israel since June 1967”.

[4] Verbatim record of the 8495th meeting of the UNSC, 27 March 2019, pp. 5-6.

[5] Ibid., pp. 5-19.

[6] Ibid., p. 4.

[7] The full text of the statement is available here.

[8] The full text of the statement is available here.

[9] The full text of the statement is available here.

[10] For a list of these decisions, see Galbraith (ed.), “Contemporary Practice of the United States Relating to International Law”, AJIL, 2019, p. 601 ff., p. 618.

[11] Pertile and Faccio, “What We Talk about When We Talk about Jerusalem: The Duty of Non-Recognition and the Prospects for Peace after the US Embassy Relocation to the Holy City”, Leiden JIL 33(3), 2020, p. 621-647.

[12] See Turrini, “The Status of Jerusalem”, IYIL, 2018, p. 468 ff.

[13] The President of the Republic, Mr Sergio Mattarella, during a talk with King Abdullah II of Jordan, had stated that giving the custodianship of Jerusalem to the Hashemite Kingdom was a wise choice because Jerusalem is a universal city that belongs to the three major monotheistic religions and he added that it is necessary to take into account this characteristic. More in general, he had reiterated that Italy supports a two-state solution to the conflict and that Italy, as the European Union does, will not accept any change to the borders unless it is agreed by the parties. See “Mattarella in Giordania: ‘Gerusalemme è delle tre religioni monoteiste. No a modifiche unilaterali dei confini’”, la Repubblica, 10 April 2019, available here.

[14] See for instance the statements by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Mr Enzo Moavero Milanesi, on the occasion of the rockets fired on 25 March 2019 from Gaza against Israel and on the occasion of the clashes occurred between Palestinian protesters and the Israeli army in Gaza in early May 2019. The texts of the statements are available here and here.

[15] See “Israel’s Netanyahu announces post-election plan to annex West Bank’s Jordan Valley”, Reuters, 10 September 2019, available here.

[16] Joint statement by the Governments of France, Germany, Italy, United Kingdom and Spain, 12 September 2019, available here.

[17] In 2015, the Italian Parliament adopted two partially contradictory motions on the recognition of Palestine as a State: see Gargiulo and Pertile (eds.), “Diplomatic and Parliamentary Practice”, IYIL, 2015, pp. 546-550.

[18] See generally Abadi, “Constraints and Adjustments in Italy’s Policy toward Israel”, Middle Eastern Studies, 2002, p. 63 ff.

Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs Manlio Di Stefano, Chamber of Deputies, 12 April 2019.

Minister Di Maio, joint session of the Commission on Foreign and European Affairs (III) of the Chamber of Deputies and theCommission on Foreign Affairs, Emigration (3rd) of the Senate of the Republic, 13 November 2019.

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