Welcome to Israel's first settler university

Ariel University is part academic institution, part political statement.

With the well-kept grass verges and cafes serving paninis and chilled beer and coke, Ariel University could resemble any modern campus college in Britain or the US. It isn’t: it is Israel’s first settler university, given official status with a great deal of controversy in July. With Salfit to its south and Nablus further to its north, Ariel is deep inside the West Bank. It is one of the major population centres annexed to "greater Israel" by the construction of the separation wall, whose route loops around the city, taking vast tracts of land from local Palestinian communities.

To look at, Ariel’s campus and media presence barely hints at the significance of its geographical location. Its emphasis, couched in the semi-managerial language becoming common to the academic world, is on “reaching out to every corner of Israeli society”, “research excellence” and “keeping its finger on the pulse of the needs of the Israeli economy”. The tension between Ariel’s claim to be normal university and its political role in cementing an Israeli civilian population in the West Bank is rapidly becoming a symbolic battleground over the future viability of a two-state solution, and, for many, a sign that Israel’s academia should be boycotted internationally.

The pretence to normality that emanates from Ariel is echoed by its students. “I don’t want to say I don’t care about these issues,” says Avishi, an economics student from Haifa, “but I study and live here – I don’t really follow it.” Sitting with Avishi and two of his classmates on a picnic bench outside a library on the university’s upper campus, I ask them why they chose Ariel. Talya, a media and communications student from Ashkelon replies. “I didn’t really think about the fact that it was in the West Bank. The main reason I chose Ariel was that my grades from high school were bad, and I couldn’t get into Be’er Sheva.”

Then, in an almost surreal moment, everyone at the table gestures to the sunset over the West Bank – “and the views are also amazing,” she says. When I ask which Palestinian town we are looking at, no one can tell me.

These unknown Palestinian villages all knew what Ariel was: the settlement exists because of land taken from the very villages that make up its picturesque views; the grass growing under our feet was almost certainly possible only because of the vast stocks of water which have been taken from under the West Bank – leaving most Palestinians either short or cut off entirely. Ariel’s sewage has on several occasions been allowed to spill over into neighbouring Salfit, polluting its water supply.

This is the bizarre reality that Ariel University’s establishment both reflects and promises for Israel. For the inhabitants of this new seat of academic inquiry, the scenery that rolls out into the sunset across from the hill-tops of Ariel is inanimate, its inhabitants and their concerns are picturesque, but not an issue.

The wilful moral oblivion that can be observed on campus is not merely a question of ignorance, especially given that most students will have done military service and seen the occupation. Rather, it is the ideological symptom the fact that Ariel’s academics and students are becoming an integral part of a project of colonial normalisation. West Bank settlements are illegal under international law primarily because the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits occupying powers from moving their civilian population into the occupied area. In these terms, the establishment of a university here could not be clearer in the message that it has sent.

With a population of around 19,000, Ariel is now host to 14,000 students – and the university aims to make it 20,000 by 2020. Ariel’s new university is not a part of the natural growth even, as a true-believer would put it, of "any normal city in Israel". Here, far from being dragged along reluctantly, academics are playing a leading role in Israel’s colonial project.

Any attempt to recognise Ariel University internationally will almost certainly be met with protest – but the situation also raises renewed questions about the role and credibility of Israeli academia more generally. Its seeming inclusion into the fold of Israeli universities is symbolic because it demonstrates the extent to which Israeli society has become enmeshed with its colonisation of the West Bank.

Just as it is often impossible to tell whether Israeli grapes in any given supermarket are from Israel itself or from its West Bank settlements, Ariel’s presence as a university will further intertwine self-assuredly normal Israelis with the Occupation. As Liel, another of Ariel’s Economics students put it to me: “It’s obvious. [Ariel] will be harder now to evacuate in negotiations... People in Israel will be forced to really fight for Ariel if their kids are at school here.”

What makes Ariel’s university status particularly notable in this process is that many ostensibly normal – or even supposedly leftwing – parts of Israeli civil society have begun to support it, often from behind the language of academic freedom and democracy. A recent letter signed by the student union heads of several Israeli universities defended Ariel’s upgrade to university status, stating that “we must not forget that there should be a complete separation between academia and Israeli politics.”

There has been opposition from Israeli universities to the Ariel’s status upgrade, but it has been partial and often caveated. Last week, university heads presented an appeal to the Israeli High Court asking calling on for the decision to be reversed. It was couched cautiously, and, like most of the mainstream debate about Ariel, in terms of funding; the primary references to the university’s illegality are limited to its contravention of procedure, rather than expropriation of Palestinian land or role in the Occupation. When individual academics came out in large numbers and said that they would boycott Ariel, Rivka Carmi, the chair of the head of universities group, attacked them, again citing academic freedom: "Academic activity is supposed to be detached from ideological or political appeals.”

Meanwhile, Ariel’s existence is a political act with every passing day, not only in terms of its location and role in the occupation, but also in the activities of its leadership. Yigal Cohen-Orgad, its Chancellor and a former Likud Member of the Knesset, has already used his position to demand that students be forced to swear allegiance to the state of Israel before being allowed to study – a measure whose primary effect will be to humiliate or exclude the Palestinian population in higher education.

The question of how international civil society should interact with Israeli institutions has always been a sharp one. For years, Britain’s academics’ union, the UCU, has along with a growing number of trade unions internationally, adopted a full boycott of Israeli universities and official cultural institutions – and this pressure is only likely to grow in the wake of the establishment of a university inside the occupied West Bank. If there is one thing that the experience of the past few years of steady colonisation has shown, it is that without being made to pay the price of the occupation, it is difficult to imagine Israeli civil society or its official institutions moving towards a just peace.

Student accommodation in the Ariel settlement in the West Bank. Photograph: Getty Images
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Irish preparations for border checks bring home the reality of Brexit

The news that the Irish government has begun preparing for customs checks has caused alarm.

With the United Kingdom set to leave the European Union, the re-introduction of some form of border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic is, perhaps, inevitable.

In particular, after Prime Minister Theresa May confirmed that the UK will be leaving the single market, few can be surprised to hear that the Irish Revenue Commissioners have begun identifying possible locations for customs checkpoints.

Internal government documents, whose contents were reported in yesterday's Irish Examiner, are said to examine possible sites in Louth, Monoghan, Cavan, Leitrim, and Donegal.

Yet if the news is not surprising, the prospect of a reinstated border still has the potential to alarm – another reminder of the unavoidable impact of Brexit on these isles.

According to the Donegal Daily, Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty has called the proposals “deeply worrying”.

“This is a major cause for concern for the island of Ireland as a whole, but particularly for counties along the border where communities there have such close social and economic links.

“The re-introduction of full customs checkpoints would cause considerable economic upheaval, and poses a very real threat to our economy and to employment on this island – both north and south.

Concerns have already been raised about services which may be threatened by Brexit. Cross-border health schemes that currently give Irish patients NHS access, for instance, may be at risk, according to UK government documents leaked to the Times.

For those in the border counties, however, the concerns are not only practical.

Although systematic customs checks were abolished in 1993, with the creation of the single market, it was not until the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement were implemented that British military checkpoints were removed from the Irish border. The last major structures were removed in 2007.

Nowadays, road travellers from the North may not even notice they have crossed into the Republic until the first bilingual road signs appear.

Yet the border still looms large in the local imagination. Darran Anderson, the author of Imaginary Cities, is from Derry-Londonderry, and grew up with a military checkpoint at the end of his street.

“The psychological dimension, and the political reverberations from that, shouldn't be overlooked," he tells me.

“The free movement of people across the border has encouraged plural senses of identity and belonging. It was never quite the European cosmopolitanism that some claimed but it was much looser than the traditional 'us and them'. With a reinstated border, we face a situation where the young in particular are expected to return to old identities and allegiances to which they've never really subscribed. Other borders, beyond the physical, risk being reinstated.

Although politicians would no doubt point out that there is a big difference between watchtowers and a routine customs stop, for some, even these proposals represent a worrying step backwards.

“Even if it does occur with minimal disruption, how long will it stay that way?” Anderson asks. “The head of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland has expressed concerns that border posts would be 'propaganda gifts' and 'sitting ducks' for rogue Republican groups, adding that attacks are ‘highly likely.’

"Should those occur, and security be stepped up as a result, it is very easy to see the border becoming re-militarised and the reassurances going the way of the Leave campaign's NHS funding pledge.”

Brexit secretary David Davis has promised that there will be no return to a “hard” border.

Last week, the House of Commons voted down a proposed amendment by the Social Democratic and Labour Party which would have guaranteed that the terms of the Good Friday Agreement be considered during negotiations to leave the European Union.

Speaking after the vote, Ulster Unionist Party MP Tom Elliot re-iterated comments made by the Irish ambassador, Daniel Mulhall, stating that the Irish government has “absolute determination” that the 1998 agreement will not be impacted by Brexit.

But the work on the Irish border suggests the practical side of Brexit may overrule the political principle. 

The Irish Revenue Commission have been approached for comment.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland