openDemocracyUK: Investigation

Oxford and other top British universities under fire for sending students to illegal Israeli settlements

Amnesty says the universities are “actively linking themselves to a whole system of illegality, discrimination and exploitation”. 

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay Walid el Houri
3 August 2020
A digger the Hebrew University has been accused of using to demolish property Palestinian property to make way for student housing. Courts have ruled in favour of the university.
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Image: Shirabe Yamada

Leading British universities have been accused of “actively linking themselves to a system of illegality, discrimination and exploitation” by participating in the illegal occupation of East Jerusalem, openDemocracy can reveal.

The institutions, including the universities of Oxford, Manchester, and Leeds, run exchange schemes with The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. As part of the programme, students usually stay in halls of residence in a Palestinian area of Jerusalem illegally occupied by Israeli settlers.

Commenting on universities who take part in the scheme, one legal expert said “universities that believe in human rights, justice and the rule of law should refrain from being partners in projects that undermine international law and ignore the suffering of the victims”.

Munir Nuseibah, assistant professor at the faculty of law at Al Quds University, the Palestinian university in Jerusalem, added: “By participating in this exchange, the universities... disregard the international consensus that East Jerusalem is occupied and that its annexation by Israel is contrary to international law.”

The leading human rights organisation Amnesty International also criticised the universities, saying they are “actively linking themselves to a whole system of illegality, discrimination and exploitation”. 

Kristyan Benedict, Amnesty’s crisis response campaign manager, added: “We’ve been calling for all businesses to cease their operations in Israel’s settlements and the parallels here are stark – a student village is little different to a settlement in its illegality if it’s been built on stolen land.”

‘I felt betrayed’

Speaking to openDemocracy on condition of anonymity, one student who took part in a year abroad scheme arranged by his British university described his shock at discovering that the accommodation provided for him was in occupied East Jerusalem. 

“I really resented being used as a tool for the legitimisation of the occupation”, he said. 

Rob Abrams, a British Jewish graduate from a summer programme at the Rothberg International School, which is part of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said: “I felt like I’d been lied to. I felt very betrayed. I was on a programme where we focussed on supposed coexistence, but there we were on land that, under international law, is an illegal occupation.”

The land in question is Al Samar, which belonged to the village of Lefta and today is referred to as the ‘French Hill’ settlement and hosts the university’s Student Village. This land, and the surroundings of the university in general, have been a site of contention between the Palestinian inhabitants and the university for decades. 

The university has expanded by dispossessing Palestinians of territory, according to experts who have studied the campus. A strategy of policing Palestinians in the surroundings while keeping a pretence of fostering “community relations” has accompanied the expansion, they say.

openDemocracy has spoken to a number of students who have stayed in the student village, who confirmed that residents at the accommodation included students from SOAS, Leeds, and the University of Birmingham, all of whom advertise exchange programmes with the Hebrew University.

The Universities of Durham and Manchester, and University College London offer exchanges with the Hebrew University, and specifically advertise its student village on their websites, despite it being on occupied territory. 

The University of Oxford, Queen Mary’s, University of London, and Trinity and University Colleges in Dublin also advertise years abroad at Hebrew University, but don’t specify on their websites what accommodation is available to students on these programmes, though students who have spent time at the Hebrew University have said that the overwhelming majority of students on years abroad from all universities stay at the student village, and therefore on occupied territory.

‘Segregation’

More than one student who had studied at the Hebrew University described the conditions on the campus as “segregation”. 

“The truth is that Israeli, Palestinian and international students barely interact. The majority of Palestinian students are there at times of the year that there really aren’t that many Israeli students around,” said Rob Abrams. 

“There’s a lot of suspicion and security in between the campus and the Palestinian villages around it. Soldiers regularly harass Palestinans near the student accommodation to keep them segregated and away from… the student village.

A Black student who had attended the university as part of her dance course at a US university also described the living conditions as “segregation”. She added that it was on a tour of the campus after she arrived that she was shown the fenced-off Palestinian area next to the campus.

Speaking to openDemocracy, she said she felt her university hadn’t properly prepared her for the highly racialised context to which it was sending her.

“My Black sisters had some experiences that were traumatic personally,” she said, describing being spat at and stoned in an Orthodox area of Jerusalem. 

Another former student we spoke to said that a far-right student group on campus harassed him after he spoke out about the situation. 

Student campaign

Palestinian SOAS student Yara Derbas, who is a member of the campaign group Apartheid Off Campus, accused the universities of “sending their students to directly take part in the maintenance of war crimes and normalise relationships with institutions which are rooted in the most brutal form of racism in our time: colonialism, apartheid and European supremacy. 

“These programmes should have never been formed in the first place, and they must end immediately.”

More than a hundred students’ union officers have signed a letter condemning the exchange programmes.

In the letter, seen by openDemocracy, they draw a contrast between statements of support for the Black Lives Matter movement from universities and their involvement with Israeli institutions. It says: “It is an undisputed fact that UK universities are actively enabling Israel’s colonial policies against the indigenous people of Palestine.”

The letter continues “eleven UK universities maintain… exchange programmes with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which is not only partially built on illegally occupied land but is also openly and systematically racist against its Palestinian students and staff. Such partnerships effectively mean that many UK exchange students were housed in illegal settlements, contravening any ethical framework and International Law.”

Universities cancel programmes

When openDemocracy contacted the School of Oriental and African Studies to ask about its involvement in the scheme, a spokesperson said that the university had agreed to back out of its arrangement with the Hebrew University at the end of the 2019/20 academic year.

The spokesperson added: “As a result of concerns raised from the SOAS community, SOAS looked at the various options for Hebrew Year Abroad provision, and eventually it was agreed that we would move our provider to Haifa University after this coming academic year.”

The University of West London also responded to our inquiries by announcing that it had cancelled its partnership.

Commenting on these schemes being cancelled, Derbas added: “SOAS and UWL ceasing links with Hebrew University is a milestone in our academic boycott campaign, setting a precedent for other universities in the UK to break their links with Israel’s apartheid regime.”

However, a number of universities defended their schemes. Responding to questions from openDemocracy, a spokesperson for the University of Manchester said:

“These agreements are vital to delivering a world class learning experience to our students and to maintaining an international experience on campus. One of these agreements is with Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which is an internationally widely recognised institution in Israel which in turn has agreements across 27 countries.”

The university confirmed that it didn’t have a formal agreement with any Palestinian university. 

Queen Mary, University of London, confirmed that two of its students have taken part in exchanges with The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, both in 2019, but added that it didn’t hold any information on the accommodation these students stayed in.

A spokesperson for the University of Birmingham said that it has “a robust due diligence process in place, which places student experience at its heart, when considering which partner institutions to work with to host study abroad students. We consider all issues in our review process for renewals and any continuation of agreements with our partners.”

A spokesperson from the University of Leeds said:

“[We have] more than 300 university partners worldwide – enabling [our] students to develop their skills and experience and enhance employability. One of these partnerships is with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“Having been informed by a student, after their return to Leeds, of an issue relating to their accommodation, we are taking steps to discuss it with our partner university.”

Asked whether any of these partnerships were with Palestinian universities, Leeds confirmed that they weren't.

Oxford University and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem did not respond to our request for comment. 

Palestinian students behind bars

Meanwhile, Palestiniain students are facing what they have labelled a campaign of arrest by Israeli forces which have targeted more than eighty university and high-school students in the West Bank alone. A letter by the Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association of North America addressed to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Brigadier General Rasan Alian, head of civil administration in the West Bank, describes the arrests as “a continuation of an undeclared but indisputable Israeli policy of targeting and disrupting Palestinian higher education”.

More recently, the Right to Education campaign at Birzeit University in the West Bank warned that “more than 80 detained students are exposed to an imminent danger as a result of the spread of Coronavirus inside Israeli prisons”, while the campaign of arrests of students continues.   

Krystian Benedict from Amnesty International said: “Palestinian students face numerous obstacles in accessing education – including forced displacement, demolitions, restrictions on movement, attacks and harassment from Israeli settlers. UK universities must not contribute to a system of oppression which routinely violates the right to education of Palestinians.” 

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