Israel's first settlement university was created this week after the defence secretary,?Ehud Barak, ordered the upgrade of a college in Ariel, a city 11 miles inside the West Bank, in a controversial move likely to lead to a renewed boycott drive by academic institutions in other countries.
Official papers granting formal approval to Ariel University were signed on Wednesday by the head of the Israeli military's central command, Major General Nitzan Alon.
The institution, which used to be called the College of Judea and Samaria, declared itself a university in 2007, an upgrade that was opposed by most other universities in Israel.
The presidents of all bar one of Israel's existing universities filed a petition at the supreme court challenging the authorisation of Ariel University. They feared that its upgraded status could lead to budget cuts for their institutions.
"These are election days and any decision on this sensitive matter at this time can be interpreted as a political move. There is no logic in acting so urgently," their petition stated.
About 12,000 students are enrolled at Ariel University, including a few hundred Israeli-Arabs. Ariel, home to almost 20,000 Israeli Jews, is one of the biggest West Bank settlements.
The Israeli cabinet backed university status for the college in September. "Ariel is an inseparable part of Israel and it will remain [so] in any future [peace] agreement just like the other settlement blocs,"?Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, said at the time.
Last year 165 academics at other Israeli educational institutions declared a boycott of Ariel University Centre, as it was called from 2007 until this week. They said they would refuse to participate in activities at the college as it was based in a settlement classified as illegal under international law.
"Ariel is not part of the sovereign territory of Israel, and we therefore cannot be required to go there," said their petition.
Following this week's upgrade, Omar Barghouti, of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, said: "Many academics around the world had already joined the widespread silent academic boycott of Israel ? that is the unannounced, yet very effective, shunning of academic visits to and relations with Israeli academic institutions ? well before this latest upgrade of Ariel.
"After the upgrade, what started as a trickle may well develop into a South Africa-style deluge of academic boycott against Israel."
The upgrade order was the latest action by the Israeli government aimed at consolidating and expanding the Israeli presence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Since the UN general assembly voted a month ago to recognise the state of Palestine, Israel has authorised the construction of thousands of new homes in existing settlements, the development of a highly sensitive expanse of land east of Jerusalem, and the building of the first new settlement across the Green Line for 15 years.
The announcements precede the general election in Israel on 22 January.
Although Netanyahu's right-wing alliance is on course to emerge as the biggest party in the 120-seat parliament it is facing a significant challenge from the far-right, pro-settler Jewish Home party, led by Netanyahu's former chief of staff, Naftali Bennett.
Some analysts believe the string of settlement announcements is an attempt to stem the loss of votes from Netanyahu's alliance to Jewish Home.
A state-funded arts centre which opened in Ariel two years ago has also been the subject of a cultural boycott. About 60 Israeli actors refused to appear at the Ariel Centre for Performing Arts, saying they did not wish to "strengthen the settlement enterprise".
Posted on 29-12-2012