You are here

Israel's West Bank university upgrade escalates row

Israel cabinet vote to change educational institution to a full university in West Bank settlement of Ariel likely to fuel boycotts.

The West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel. The Israeli cabinet's decision to upgrade an educational institution in the city to a fully-fledged university has enraged activists and Israeli academics. Photograph: Ariel Schalit/AP

The Israeli cabinet has voted to upgrade an educational institution in the West Bank settlement of Ariel to a fully-fledged university in a controversial step likely to fuel the international boycott movement.

Implementation of the upgrade, however, depends on a high court ruling on a petition against the move brought by a body representing Israel's existing universities, who fear state funds will be channelled away from their institutions.

The change was backed by prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who told cabinet colleagues that "Ariel is an inseparable part of Israel and it will remain [so] in any future [peace] agreement just like the other settlement blocs."

The cabinet agreed that the conversion of Ariel University Centre to a fully-accredited university was a matter of "national importance".

Ariel is one of three big settlement blocs across the pre-1967 line in the West Bank. The other two, Ma'ale Adumim and Gush Etzion, are likely to be on the Israeli side of a future border, but the fate of Ariel is uncertain as it juts deep inside the Palestinian territory, almost bisecting the West Bank.

Ariel College, founded in 1982, was upgraded to a "university centre" five years ago, and now has around 12,000 students enrolled. Anti-settlement organisations and activists have campaigned against it being formally granted university status.

Last year, around 145 Israeli academics announced a boycott of the establishment, saying "Ariel is not part of the sovereign territory of Israel".

A spokesperson for the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel said: "By awarding the college full university status, Israel is attempting to normalise its military occupation and colonisation of Palestinian land. Universities and academics that consistently uphold human rights will refuse to enter into partnership with this new university."

A state-funded arts centre which opened in Ariel almost two years ago has been the subject of a cultural boycott. Around 60 Israeli actors refused to appear at the Ariel Centre for Performing Arts, saying they did not wish to "strengthen the settlement enterprise".

By Harriet Sherwood