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
Hamzah al Zobi
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Meet the Syrians using education to escape the refugee camps

On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.

“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”

Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”

More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.

“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”

According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.

“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”

Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.

Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.

Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.

During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.

But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”

To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.

“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”

In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".