Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a proclamation signed by U.S. President Donald Trump recognizing Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Picture: Reuters/Ronen Zvulun

South Africa has proved extremely effective at using its strategic position on the UN Security Council to lobby fellow members on issues that go to the heart of maintaining a rules based international order and adherence to international law. The US unilateral declaration by Presidential Proclamation on March 25th that the US recognises Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights is one such issue, which has set a dangerous precedent in international relations and trampled on what remains of the international rule book. 

Last month, the US State Department already moved to include the Golan Heights in the “Israel” section of its annual human rights report, and on Tuesday last week the Trump administration was already publishing maps showing the Golan Heights as part of Israel.

South Africa, and Minister Lindiwe Sisulu in particular, has used South Africa’s strategic position on the UN Security Council to lobby EU members such as France, Germany, the UK, Poland and Belgium to take a firm position against this flagrant unilateralism that flies in the face of international law and past UN Resolutions. 

UN Resolution 242 clearly calls for the “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces” from territories occupied in the Six-Day War – meaning the Sinai Peninsula, West Bank and the Golan Heights. UN Resolution 497 goes further, and explicitly highlights the illegality of the Israeli occupation: “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 EU has always taken a strong stand on this issue, and all 28 EU members have unanimously declared that they do not recognise Zionist sovereignty over the Golan Heights, in line with UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 497. But South Africa’s voice of conscience on the Council may have provided the added impetus that saw all five EU members issue a joint statement last week against the US unilateral declaration. As  Sisulu has said, South Africa is consistent in its morality, and is pleased that other countries are following suit. 

The statement of the EU members of the UN Security Council members was as follows: “We do not recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967, including the Golan Heights and we do not consider them to be part of the State of Israel. Annexation of territory by force is prohibited under international law. Any declaration of a unilateral border change goes against the foundation of the rules based international order and UN Charter. We raise our strong concerns about the broader consequences of recognising illegal annexation and also about the broader regional consequences.” 

It has become a growing trend that the US is determined to undermine UN Resolutions that have attempted to call states into line which have acted in violation of international law and all acceptable norms and standards. This dramatic change in US policy regarding the Middle East has serious consequences as its next move may be to officially recognise Israel’s intention to annex the West Bank.  It is looking increasingly like Trump’s proposed “Deal of the Century” for the Middle East which was expected to be unveiled after the Israeli elections, will be nothing but an endorsement of Israel’s illegal occupation of territories that belong to Syria and the Palestinians. 

Just as Israel continues its land grab in the Occupied Territories, building more settlements and illegally settling Israelis on Palestinian land, it is doing so in the Golan Heights as well. Michael Oren, a former Israeli Ambassador to the US and a confidant of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, formally launched a plan last year to quadruple the size of the Golan’s settler population to 100 000 within a decade. 

The Golan has strategic natural resources that Israel is determined to hold onto, particularly water which is a precious and scarce resource in the region. The Golan has most of Syria’s water, and provides Israel with decisive control over the Sea of Galilee, a large freshwater lake that is crucially important in a region facing water shortages. Israeli and US companies are also setting up commercial wind farms to sell electricity. 

Israel has been cooperating with US energy giant Genie to explore large oil reserves under the Golan. Extracting the oil will be difficult unless Israel can argue it exercises sovereignty over the Golan. Trump’s son in law Jared Kushner, who has pushed the notion that Israel has sovereignty over the Golan, has notable business interests in Genie. On the Board of Genie is Ira Greenstein who has ties to Jared Kushner, as well as former US Vice President Dick Cheney, former US Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, former CIA Director James Woolsley, former Head of the US Treasury Larry Summers, media Baron Rupert Murdoch, and banker Jacob Rothschild.

What is lost in this underhanded game is that expropriation of Syrian and Palestinian lands will not bring security or prosperity to Israel, only greater regional instability. 

The blatant disregard by Israel of the illegality of occupying the Golan Heights serves to support South Africa's decision to downgrade its diplomatic relations with Israel until Israel complies with international law.

* Shannon Ebrahim is the Group Foreign Editor.