Analysis. The Italian Society for Middle Eastern Studies is the latest group of scholars to put pressure on a large, well-funded university in the middle of occupied land.

More academics join boycott against Israel’s Ariel University

In February, the Italian Society for Middle Eastern Studies (SeSaMO) answered the call from the Palestinian academic world to refuse to recognize the university in the Israeli colony of Ariel.

SeSaMO, established in 1995 in Florence, brings together scholars from different disciplines and works to promote research on the Middle East, North Africa and the Horn of Africa. Two months ago, during the last annual meeting of the society, the participants decided to ask its president, Daniela Melfa, to send a letter to the Minister of Education asking him “to not accredit or recognize in any way Ariel University and the other university-level educational institutions located in the illegal Israeli settlements.”

At the end of March, the letter addressed to Minister Bussetti was published on the SeSaMO website, stressing the fact that, according to international law, “the transfer of civilian population and the construction of thousands of settlements in territories occupied by military force” are to be considered “war crimes.” With this letter, for the first time ever, an Italian academic society officially requested the suspension of relations with an Israeli university from the colonies.

In Hebrew, Ariel means “Lion of God.” Funded in 1978, after 11 years of Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, Ariel is one of the four largest settlements in the Occupied Territories. It has 20,000 residents living within its 15,000 square kilometers, located mostly in the West Bank, halfway between the 1948 Green Line and the border with Jordan. “In 15 years, this will be a city with 100,000 inhabitants,” promised Mayor Eli Shaviro a year ago. In March, with the electoral campaign in full swing, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced the expansion of the settlement with 840 new dwellings, as a sort of “retaliation” for the murder of Israeli soldier Gal Keidan and Rabbi Achiad Ettinger at the hands of an 18-year-old Palestinian, Omar Abu Leila.

Ariel is, in effect, a full-fledged city, in strong contrast with the image that people who have never actually seen the West Bank have of Israeli colonies. Identical apartment buildings, hospitals, shopping centers and an industrial area with 45 factories take up one third of the area of ​​jurisdiction of the municipality, assigned to it from Tel Aviv in violation of international law. At first, Ariel used to house the middle-class employees of the two largest Israeli military companies, the former Israel Aircraft Industries and Israel Military Industries. In the ‘90s, it was one of the destinations for immigration from the former Soviet Union, as Israel saw the arrival of over a million Russian Christians (to whose religion nobody wanted to draw attention, as the goal was simply to increase the Israeli population). Finally, the last of the waves of “migration” took place in the mid-2000s, when Gaza settlers were relocated there. This latter ultra-religious group has partly altered the previously secular character of the settlement, which used to lack ties to the religious movements that were thriving in the rest of the occupied West Bank.

According to the Israeli narrative, which can be read on the town’s website, Ariel is “a city in the heart of Israel.” Its real situation is whitewashed with its entirely “normal” industrial zone and “normal” university. Founded in 1982 as a branch of the Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, Ariel University has been an independent university since 2004. Just a year ago, a special law placed it under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education in Tel Aviv.

It has 15,000 students, a faculty of 450, and departments of architecture, engineering, natural sciences, social sciences and medicine: “Ariel University presents a fresh perspective on contemporary Zionism and strives to revive the values of nation-building through dedication to excellence in science and research and championing social challenges,” one can read on its website. Its students and faculty “represent the full spectrum of Israeli society: Jews and Arabs, secular and observant, new immigrants and native-born Israelis.”

What makes Ariel University particularly attractive is its 20 research centers, working on everything from curing cancer to cybernetic innovation and from archeology to national security. Now, after a donation of $20 million from US billionaire Sheldon Adelson, the university is looking forward to a great expansion.

But there are some who refuse to have any part in this supposed success story. The Palestinian campaign for “No Academic Business as Usual with Ariel University and all other Israeli Academic Institutions Illegally Built on Occupied Palestinian Land” (signed by the Palestinian Ministry of Education and Higher Education, the Council of Palestinian Universities’ Presidents, the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees and the Palestinian Human Rights Organization Council) sounded the call for a boycott, appealing to all institutions, governments and individual academics to refuse to recognize the legitimacy of Ariel University. According to the campaign, “collaborating with Ariel University necessarily means normalizing Israel’s illegal policies that deny Palestinian rights.”

The boycott may take different forms: the refusal to participate in joint projects and conferences, the refusal to publish submissions by scholars working for Ariel University unless with an indication of the origin of the research as “the Occupied Palestinian Territories,” as well as a commitment to promote petitions for the non-recognition of the institution. The campaign also calls for denouncing the abuses that are happening on a daily basis: the denial of entry visas to Israel to those who collaborate with Palestinian universities, the refusal of permission to leave Gaza for students with scholarships abroad and the barriers to the right to education on account of the military checkpoints.

Some have answered the call for the boycott: 1,200 Israeli academics, the Israeli Anthropological Association and the Israeli Sociological Society, the Technical University of Denmark, the European Association of Social Anthropologists, the Kasetsart University in Bangkok and Exeter University have ended partnerships with Ariel University and refused to collaborate with it. Now, they have been joined by the Italian SeSaMO as well.

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