It seems that, prior to WWII, lands conquered in war were considered legitimately part of the winning state. After WWII, the international doctrine changed that territories acquired in an aggressive war are not legitimately part of the winning state. However, Israel's 1967 War was by all definitions not an aggressive war but rather a defensive war. So, why are the Golan Heights and the West Bank not recognized as legitimate parts of the State of Israel by most entities?

Note that I am not asking about the implications of the decision to not recognize Israeli rule in the areas under discussion. Rather, I am asking why the acquisition of territory in a defensive war is not generally recognized, both in this specific case and perhaps in other cases as examples may be provided.

A corollary which may be addressed would be: if territory cannot be legitimately won in an aggressive war, can territory be legitimately lost in an aggressive war?

  • 32
    by some entities? is extremely misleading. No one is the accurate statement for the West Bank, esp as Israel has not annexed it yet and the West Bank is only recognized by Israel and the US. Commented Sep 13, 2020 at 16:43
  • 18
    Terminology challenge: You link "defensive war" to "just war" -- the two are not equivalent. Furthermore, directly attacking a neighbor's airfields and simultaneously launching a ground offensive into the Gaza strip and the Sinai is not a defensive action. One may argue that it is just, but defensive and just do not mean the same thing. Commented Sep 13, 2020 at 21:05
  • 4
    It appears to me that Isreal itself did/does not consider many of the occupied territories as part of Israel proper, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israeli_Military_Governorate Commented Sep 14, 2020 at 14:25
  • 1
    also defensive war is not necessarily accurate. Israel had stated that it would consider blocking Israeli shipping at the straits of Tiran to be casus belli, and acted upon that. It had not said that it considered blocking shipping an act of war. The official Israeli position at the time is that it took necessary preemptive action which does not fit the usual definitions of a defensive war
    – Tristan
    Commented Sep 16, 2020 at 13:33
  • 2
    @EricTowers If Israel was responding to a threat, then attacking was a defensive action. If my neighbor is shooting into my house, then going into their house and taking their gun is defensive (not asserting this is analogous, just saying that attacking someone else's territory can be defensive). And whether an action is defensive is separate from whether the war was. Commented Oct 26, 2020 at 3:22

7 Answers 7


The general philosophy of post-WWII international order is that the inhabitants of a territory are entitled to self-determination. While there are still many political and historical obstacles to the general application of this principle, it is clear that any kind of military conquest contradicts this principle: it is simply not morally acceptable anymore to grab land by force in any circumstances.

This is evidenced by the clear historical trend of the decolonization process: under this self-determination principle, colonizing countries typically have to organize referendums, and they must leave the colonized country if this is what the inhabitants want. One may also note that there hasn't been any successful conquest war accepted by the international community since WWII. For instance nobody would ever consider that the US has any right to keep territories in Afghanistan, even if it can arguably be seen as a defensive war.

  • 16
    Of course conquest wars have happened since WWII. Goa comes to mind, or for a more recent example Crimea. I'm sure there are others.
    – dotancohen
    Commented Sep 13, 2020 at 23:34
  • 24
    @dotancohen nice try. Goa was essentially India recovering territorial integrity from Portugal, a colonial power which had no business being there. Crimea will remain unrecognized, until such time as Ukraine finds its to its interest to cede it to Russia. That might take a while considering how trustworthy the Russian government is right now. Commented Sep 14, 2020 at 0:20
  • 15
    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica Goa could not be "recovered by India", simply because it never was part of the Indian state to begin with. Goa could've become independent and maybe later joined India on its own terms, however. Portugal did not handle this gracefully and needed to leave, but that does not mean that the Indian invasion was rightful. India's claim to Goa was only marginally better.
    – Chieron
    Commented Sep 14, 2020 at 15:32
  • 7
    @ZachLipton that's not the point. The point is no one, not even Russia, thinks it is possible to conquer land by force today. Crimea is an example for a "referendum" that's not recognised internationally. Russia could say "Fuck you Ukraine, we take what we want, whatcha gonna do?" And Ukraine couldn't do anything. But not even Russia does that today. They say, there was a referendum and that's the will of the people...
    – Josef
    Commented Sep 15, 2020 at 23:28
  • 7
    @Josef your last comment didn't age well unfortunately. Not your fault of course
    – clabacchio
    Commented May 18, 2022 at 9:26

It seems the Stimson doctrine was interpreted more general than you interpret it. The phrasing there just says 'result of aggression', and Israel clearly used aggression (as in military force) during this war (as did the opposing countries). It might be considered a just war, so Israel is allowed to defend itself. But they still can't conquer new territories. Essentially, territory cannot be lost in an aggressive war either.

This is of course my interpretation of these two concepts but it does seem to match the observed real world behaviour since World War II.


Since the end of WW2 and the start of decolonization the international community has been quite reluctant on 2 directly related items:

  • Occupation of other countries' territories, i.e. colonization. For example, the fact that the UK is still sitting on Diego Garcia is more might than right.

  • Redrawing of borders. That includes cases where the borders, inherited from the colonial past are less than ideal, for example parts of Africa where ethnic groups straddle several borders. Another example would be the Kurds. Or even Crimea, where, whatever one thinks of Russian activities in Ukraine's mainland, it is possible that the residents wish to reverse the 1954 cessation of Crimea to Ukraine.

In short, the international community very strongly favors stability of borders, non-acquisition of territories by war and the right of people to self-determination. The reason for this is simple - it limits the temptations to redraw borders, when the expected outcome is not to be recognized.

Whenever there is pressure for redrawing borders for a small area, such as secession movements, the international community largely looks to the currently recognized host country for the area, Palestine in this case, at least for 138 nations - not only some - , to agree to that partition and for the inhabitants to agree to it.

Now, this is the ideal, but it doesn't automatically happen. Tibet is still under China's control. No one could force Yugoslavia to stay together after their wars in the 90s (nor is it clear that would have been a good idea). No one is forcing Israel to respect UN resolution 242. But that doesn't mean the international community needs to provide moral cover for abuses.

Recognizing an annexation of the West Bank and the Golan Heights runs afoul of those principles and makes a mockery that the Palestinian residents, or Palestine, would somehow be in agreement with it.

Lastly, I question whether such a move would even be in Israel's interest. To quote an answer to a recent question, answered by an Israeli:

Palestians aren't Israel citizens, so they can't vote for Knesset.

Blue and White party doesn't want to make them citizens because then Israel will have to either:

Stop being a democracy (if Israel decides to not allow some of its citizens to vote)

Stop being a Jewish state (if Israel decides to let them vote then it might lose the Jewish majority over time)


This is more of a postscript to Erwan's answer (which I believe is the most pertinent point).

As well as moral acceptability, there is the question of practicality. Prior to WWII most countries had enough to worry about trying to feed themselves and develop. Two things happened following WWII that allowed the international community to promote stability (which is clearly in their interest):

  1. There was a dramatic increase in international cooperation. For example, the Geneva conventions were expanded and ratified by more countries. This was made possible partly by the development of aviation and telecommunications, but also motivated by the horrors of WWII.
  2. There was a dramatic increase in wealth outside of the "great" powers. Many more countries could afford to project power through trade, and were more confident about defending themselves.

In short, it was never in the common interest to allow territorial occupation, but the world previously lacked the ability to do much about it.


There is a simple question and also a more complex question. The simple question is why most states are not willing to accept the 'right of conquest' in the case of Israel. The more complex question is why the West Bank is not legally considered now as part of Israel.

I will try to answer part of the complex question, since parts of it cannot be overlooked and I am not sure if everyone knows them, than I will proceed to the simpler question.

So, the legal status now. Legally, Israel itself does not consider the West Bank as part of it, except for East Jerusalem. This is the reason why the Supreme Court struck down the "Hasdara Law". This is the reason the law that imposes that plastic bags be sold for 0.10 NIS did not pass in most of the West Bank. The territories are under the Military Governorate, and are in a state of military occupation. East Jerusalem and the Golan were annexed, albeit with an ambiguous formulation ('Israeli law is applied to...' instead of 'these territories are part of Israel'). However, the Israeli Government tries in many ways to make the territories "feel" as parts of Israel. It gives to its Israeli residents the right to vote for the Knesset (as opposed to Israelis in other countries, who cannot vote), it produces maps where the Green Line is not shown, it tries to apply as much as possible the Israeli Law to the settlements and so on.

For this reason, the Golan Heights (and East Jerusalem) have a completely different status from the West Bank.

I could go on and on about the legal status of the territories, how the Israeli Government is defining the West Bank now as "disputed", rather than "occupied", territories, and so on, but since we are in Politics.SE and not in Law.SE I suppose you are more interested in the reasons that lie behind the political moves, rather than the legal content.

So the reasons why most states do not recognize Israeli claims are (in my view):

  • First of all, Israel itself uses ambiguous formulations regarding its rights to the territories. Especially for the West Bank, there is a broad consensus that recognizing it as part of Israel bears an obligation to provide citizenship to its (Arab) residents, a really existential threat for the State, so it is not in its interests to consider it as "part of the State". Similarly, many legal terms used by Israel (and by Palestinians) are bogus. For example, outside of Israel, there is no law, treaty, contract between nations whatsoever that uses the term "defensive war". It is not a legal term, and if you think about it it is rather subjective, since Israel was the one that first invaded Egyptian territory and that the eyes of the Kibbutzim were set on the Golan already before the war.

  • If the "right of conquest" is recognized, this opens an enormous can of worms. If it is accepted that you can conquer a territory and make it yours, expect tensions in the South China Sea, in the vicinity of Russia, in the West Sahara and so on. It could provide an incentive for wars.

  • Israel is at best a regional power of 9 million inhabitants, very unpopular among its neighbors and in general in the world. Recognizing its claims attracts the antagonism of 300 million Arabs, and billions of opposers. Netanyahu is somewhat successfully fighting that and applying a doctrine that states that strengthening the country economically and militarily will automatically produce diplomatic and popular achievements. Despite his efforts, Israel is still very very unpopular and very much isolated as compared, for example, to Sweden. The incentive for not being friends with Israel is simply bigger than the incentive to be friends with it, at least for the moment.

So, international recognition of the West Bank as part of Israel is almost nonexistent since Israel itself does not recognize it at such, since it would create a dangerous precedent and since Israel's position is diplomatically very weak.

Recognition of East Jerusalem and the Golan is a bit more present (the USA decided to accept the claim of a 'defensive war' for the Golan and moved their embassy to the No-Man's-Zone outside of 1967 lines, some countries recognize 'Jerusalem' as the capital without specifying West, etc), since Israel itself demands it, some allies go with it, and especially the Golan has a lesser potential than the West Bank for evoking the Palestinian problem which alienates the world because it is considered more 'Syrian' than 'Palestinian'

  • 1
    Your first bullet point is, in my mind, by far the most important point, to the point that it might be the only one that matters. Why would the world recognize these areas as Israeli territory when even the Israelis kind of-sort of don't themselves? It's a bit of a technicality, sure, but it's a technicality that Israel could easily fix, but does not.
    – Michael W.
    Commented Sep 23, 2020 at 18:56

the international doctrine about the right of self rule for indigenous people has gain prominence before WWII. In the 1st WW, the British empire conquered Palestine from the Ottoman Empire, ending 400 years of Turkish rule over the land. The newly formed League of Nations issued a mandate for the British administration of the territories of Palestine and Transjordan. The mandate document was based on Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations:

Article XXII referred to the creation of Mandate territories, which were given over to be administered by European powers. Though most Mandates were given to countries such as Britain and France, which possessed considerable colonial empires, the Covenant made the clear distinction that a Mandate territory was not a colony.

The Covenant asserted that such territories were "inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world" and so "the tutelage of such peoples should be entrusted to advanced nations who by reason of their resources, their experience or their geographical position can best undertake this responsibility" as a "a sacred trust of civilization".

So the British empire was given a mandate to govern over the land until such time when the indigenous people could establish governments by themselves.

While at first viewed favorably, both the Jews and the Arabs became distrustful of the British administration and sought to oust the foreign power. Following several violent clashes, the British decided they had enough and announced that they are giving the mandate back to the United Nations (this was after the end of WWII), ending a 30 year rule.

UN resolution 181, a.k.a United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine called for the establishment of two independent states: a Jewish one and an Arab one. The ensuing 1948 war ended in the establishment of de-facto borders that were not the same as the ones drawn in the partition plan. However, the idea of the two independent states for the two indigenous people has gained int'l acceptance. The 1948 war also resulted in occupation of the west bank by Jordan and of the Gaza strip by Egypt. While both countries annexed the occupied territories, the annexation was not recognized by the int'l community and the occupation was regarded as illegal. However, it was accepted for diplomatic and practical reasons.

In the six days war of 1967, Israel conquered the West bank and Gaza strip. the legal status of the territories remained the same as stated in the 1947 partition plan.

  • 1
    Did Egypt annex the Gaza strip?
    – dotancohen
    Commented Sep 22, 2020 at 11:54
  • @dotancohen, not officially. Egypt first installed a puppet "All Palestinian" gov't which was disolved in 1959. since then, the status of the strip was "under Egyptian occupation" Commented Sep 22, 2020 at 12:43

Yeah, what could possibly go wrong? United States recognition of the Golan Heights as part of Israel :

The [US/Trump] proclamation cited "aggressive acts by Iran and terrorist groups, including Hizballah, in southern Syria" as justification for Israel to maintain sovereignty over the Golan Heights as Israel has a "need to protect itself from Syria and other regional threats."

'A few moments later' in the history of the blue ball, yay

Lavrov cites Israeli occupation of Golan Heights to expose US hypocrisy

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the United States on Saturday of hypocrisy and double standards in its approach to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and the Donbas region of Ukraine. Speaking at a press conference in New York, Lavrov referenced recent contradictory remarks by US officials on respecting the territorial integrity of UN member states while continuing to recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied Syrian Golan Heights.

To highlight the inconsistency, Lavrov first read a statement by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken justifying Israel’s control over the Golan as being vital for its security against threats from Syria and Iran-backed militias. The Russian minister then cited Blinken’s own words on the importance of Ukraine regaining control over Russia-backed separatist regions in Donbas for its security.

“As a practical matter, the Golan is very important to Israel’s security,” Blinken told CNN in 2021. “As long as Assad is in power in Syria, as long as Iran is present in Syria, militia groups backed by Iran, the Assad regime itself, all of these pose a significant security threat to Israel, and as a practical matter, the control of the Golan in that situation, I think, remains of real importance to Israel’s security. Legal questions are something else.”

Lavrov responded to criticism of Russia’s occupation of the Donbas region by reading Blinken’s statement back and inserting “the Donbas” instead of “Israeli occupied Golan Heights”.

“The Donbas is very important to Russia’s security,” he said when asked to comment on respect for territorial integrity. “As long as Zelenskyy is in power in Ukraine, as long as NATO is present in Ukraine, militia groups backed by NATO, the Zelenskyy regime itself – all of these pose a significant security threat to Russia, and as a practical matter, the control of the Donbas in that situation, I think, remains of real importance to Russia’s security. Legal questions are something else. And over time, if the situation were to change in Ukraine, that’s something we’d look at. But we are nowhere near that.”

Annexation for me but not for thee?

A view shared by hardliners in Teheran obviously

If NATO wins in Ukraine, Iran would be its next target, the hardline Kayhan wrote Sunday, reinforcing Tehran’s support for Russia and calling for "pre-emptive defense." [...]

The Kayhan editorial was written by its ultra-hardliner editor Hossein Shariatmadari, who enjoys the title of Khemeni’s representative at the flagship conservative newspaper and is seen as reflecting the views of the Supreme Leader.

Shariatmadari described Khamenei’s praise for Putin’s “initiative” to attack Ukraine as “a serious warning to America and its allies” who “are playing with the lion’s tail.” He also wrote that “Iran is one of the next main targets” of NATO, if the Western alliance wins in Ukraine, which would justify a preemptive reaction.

And yeah, everything is preventive of something for a sufficiently broad concept of the latter. Russia claims to prevent EU/NATO expansion.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .