Over 500 academics call on EU to keep Israel’s Ariel University out of research projects

25 Mar 2021 | News

Ariel University, located in a settlement on the West Bank, should have no involvement in EU-funded projects researchers say, as the university denies one of its professors received EU funding

Over 500 academics from more than 20 European countries and Israel on Wednesday published an open letter condemning any involvement of Israel’s Ariel University in EU-funded research projects.

The university is located in the West Bank, an area Palestinians seek for their future state. The EU and most of the international community views permanent settlements on this land as illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.

The letter notes “with grave concern the ongoing failure of the European Union to ensure that its taxpayer-funded research programmes are not used to legitimise or otherwise sustain the establishment and the activities of Israeli academic institutions in illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT).”

According to participation rules for Horizon 2020, the EU’s most recent science programme, Israeli entities may only receive grants from EU programmes if the projects concerned do not take place in settlements occupied by Israel since 1967. The Commission says “all its projects are closely monitored” and undergo a “rigorous ethical evaluation”.

The letter says that Ariel University hosted a dissemination event for the BOUNCE project in June 2020. In addition, a professor from Ariel University is listed as a co-researcher on the project, “raising serious questions as to whether research activities were carried out in the OPT,” the letter says.

Ariel University is also listed as involved in the Horizon 2020 earth observation project GEO-CRADLE, the letter notes.

The academics allege that, “multiple cases demonstrate failures of the Commission to properly instruct against, monitor for, and rectify project management transgressions against these EU positions.”

“The EU must and can do better,” the letter states. “At a time when the EU is finalising Horizon 2020’s successor, the €100 billion Horizon Europe programme, we urge the EU Commission, Parliament and Council to devise, fund and implement the effective monitoring of participating research projects and hold transgressors accountable.”

In response to the letter, Nicole Greenspan, head of international research and public relations at Ariel University said, “The inconsequential issue raised is that of the participation of a single Ariel University professor in an online event. The researcher is not funded by the EU.”

Sampling soil in the Occupied Territories

In January 2020, Green MEP Gina Dowding asked the Commission to account for Ariel University’s participation in GEO-CRADLE.

EU research commissioner Mariya Gabriel responded by saying Horizon 2020 projects are being closely monitored by the Commission services and that this includes a rigorous ethical evaluation.

“In the GEO-CRADLE proposal there was no indication that the Tel Aviv University, one of the partners, intended to take soil samples in occupied territories or cooperate with stakeholders in these areas. Once the violation was detected, the Commission immediately took action, recalling the rules to the coordinator, who instructed Tel Aviv University to stop cooperation with Ariel University and Golan Heights Winery.”

Soil samples collected from the settlements were excluded from the research, Gabriel said, adding, “Costs claimed for these activities and the subsequent rectification were considered not eligible and therefore not covered by EU funding.”

The European Commission has been contacted for additional comment.

‘Political letter’

According to Greenspan, “Ariel University is an institution recognised by the Israeli Council for Higher Education. Its students and researchers hail from all segments of the population with no regard to nationality or religion. The university is actively involved in research to better the entire region including both Israeli and Palestinian communities around it.”

“Ariel University holds the mixing of research with politics to be abhorrent as do all serious researchers. The use of academic titles and affiliations should not be used to legitimise people’s personal political opinions. This letter, despite being undersigned by people from academia, is not an academic letter. It is a purely political one,” Greenspan said.

Since it was established in 2012, Ariel University’s presence in the West Bank has repeatedly stirred controversy, with some Israeli academics and the Palestinians coming out against the institution over the years.

Last year, the Trump administration lifted a decades-old ban that had prohibited US taxpayer funding of Israeli scientific research conducted in settlements in the West Bank territory, drawing Palestinian condemnation. Ariel was chosen as the venue for a ceremony marking a new scientific and technology cooperation accord with the US.

Signatories speak

Science|Business spoke to four Israeli scientists who signed the letter.

Amiram Goldblum, professor emeritus of molecular modeling and drug design at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, complained that Ariel University is not recognised by international law.

Outi Bat-El Foux, professor of linguistics at Tel Aviv University said, “As a person who was born and raised in Israel, and cares about its future, the existence of the city of Ariel and its academic institution undermine the foundation of Israel and its people.”

Ofer Aharony, a theoretical physicist at the Weizmann Institute of Science, said he is “strongly opposed to Israel's policy of establishing settlements in the West Bank. I view such settlements as illegal under international law and I am not willing to do anything to assist them.”

Aharony added that his opinion was “a minority view in Israel; most Israelis support the settlement at least to some extent, though there is probably also a small majority that would support dismantling some settlements if and when a peace agreement with the Palestinians is signed.”

Raphael Greenberg, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University, said, “Many of our colleagues in Israel and Europe appear to accept the normalisation of the Ariel institution as an Israeli research university. By insisting that the EU stand by its own principles, we wish to protect our institutions and remind our colleagues that legitimacy is hard to attain and easy to lose.”

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