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
Photo: Getty
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Sheepwrecked: how the Lake District shows up World Heritage's flaws

Here's hoping future statements about farming and the environment aren't quite so sheepish.

“Extremists like George Monbiot would destroy the Lake District,” tweeted Eric Robson, presenter of Radio 4’s Gardener’s Questions. But he’s “just standing up for nature”, others shot back in Monbiot’s defence. The cause of the clash? The park’s new World Heritage status and the continuing debate over the UK’s “sheep-wrecked” countryside.

Tension is such you can almost hear Cumbria’s Vikings chuckling in their hogback graves – for sheep farming still defines the Lakes as much as any poem. Hilltop farmers, like Lizzie Weir and Derek Scrimegeour, have sweated the landscape into shape over generations. And while Wordsworth may have wandered lonely as a cloud, a few hundred pairs of pricked ears were likely ruminating nearby.

UNESCO’s World Heritage committee now officially supports this pro-farm vision: “The most defining feature of the region, which has deeply shaped the cultural landscape, is a long-standing and continuing agro-pastoral tradition,” says the document which recommends the site for approval. 

And there’s much to like about the award: the region’s small, outdoor farms are often embedded in their local community and focused on improving the health and quality of their stock – a welcome reminder of what British farms can do at their best. Plus, with Brexit on the horizon and UK megafarms on the rise, farmers like these need all the spotlight they can get.

But buried in the details of the bid document is a table showing that three-quarters of the area's protected sites are in an “unfavourable condition”. So it is depressing that farming’s impact on biodiversity appears to have been almost entirely overlooked. Whether you agree with the extent of George Monbiot’s vision for Rewilding or not, there are clearly questions about nibbled forests and eroded gullies that need to be addressed – which are not mentioned in the report from UNESCO’s  lead advisory body, ICOMOS, nor the supplementary notes on nature conservation from IUCN.

How could so little scrutiny have been applied? The answer may point to wider problems with the way the World Heritage program presently works – not just in Cumbria but around the world.

In the Lake District’s case, the bid process is set-up to fail nature. When the convention was started back in the 1970s, sites could be nominated under two categories, either “cultural” or “natural”, with the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) advising on the first, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on the second.

Then in 1992 a new category of “cultural landscape” was introduced to recognise places where the “combined works of nature and man” are exceptional. This means such sites are always evaluated principally by ICOMOS, giving them more resources to research and shape the verdict – and limiting the input IUCN is able to make.

Another weakness is that the evaluation bodies can only follow a state’s choice of category. So if a state nominates a site as a Cultural Landscape, then considerations about issues like biodiversity can easily end up taking a back seat.

According to Tim Badman, director of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme, this situation is in need of redress. “The way in which this separation of nature and culture works is increasingly out of tune and counter-productive,” he says. “Every natural site has some kind of relationship with people, and every cultural site has some major conservation interest, even if it might not be globally significant. We should collaborate much more to make that a virtue of the system.”

The more you think about it, the madder the notion of a “Cultural Landscape” sounds. Landscapes are, after all, inherently scoped out by man, and there is little in the natural world that humanity has left untouched. Especially those in Western Europe and especially those, like Cumbria, that have been felled and farmed by a succession of historic invaders.

Relationships between advisory bodies are also not the only failing in UNESCO’s approach; relationships between nations and the convention can be problematic too. At this month’s meeting of the committee in Poland, it was decided that the Great Barrier Reef would, once again – and despite shocking evidence of its decline – not be on UNESCO’s “In Danger” list. It prompts the question, what on earth is the list for?

The reluctance of many nations to have their sites listed as In Danger is a mixed blessing, says Badman. In some cases, the prospect of being listed can motivate reform. But it is also a flawed tool – failing to include costed action plans – and causing some governments to fear attacks from their domestic opposition parties, or a decline in their tourism.

On top of this, there is the more generalised politicking and lobbying that goes on. Professor Lynn Meskell, an Anthropologist at Stanford University, is concerned that, over the years, the institution “has become more and more political”. At the most recent session of the World Heritage Committee earlier this month, she found nominations being used to inflame old conflicts, a continuing regional dominance by Europe, and a failure to open up many “at risk” sites for further discussion. “All Yemen’s sites are in danger, for instance” she says, “yet they couldn’t afford to even send one person."

Perhaps most challenging of all is the body’s response to climate change. At the recent committee gathering, Australia raised the subject by way of suggesting it cannot be held solely be responsible for the decline of the Great Barrier Reef. And Turkey attempted to water down a reference to the Paris Climate Agreement, claiming the language used was overly “technical” and that the delegates present were too inexpert to comment.

According to Tim Badman, climate change is certainly an area that needs further work, not least because World Heritage’s present policy on the subject is now a decade old. Even the most ambitious interpretation of the Paris Climate Agreement would still see very significant damage done to Heritage sites around the world, Badman says.

There is hope of change, however. For the most polite yet sturdy response to Turkey’s objections – or, as the chair ironically puts it “this very small ecological crisis” – I recommend watching these encouraging reactions from Portugal, Phillippines and Finland (2h30) -  a push-back on technical objections that Meskell says is rare to see. IUCN will also be producing the second edition of their World Heritage Outlook this November.

Positions on the Lake District’s farms will also hopefully be given further thought. Flaws within World Heritage’s approach may have helped pull wool over the committee’s eyes, but future debate should avoid being quite so sheepish.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.