UNESCO: Stop Covering up the Israeli Academy’s Complicity in Occupation and Apartheid

— PACBI | 11 July 2010

Occupied Ramallah, 11 July 2010 — The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) condemns the newly announced Master”s program, coordinated by La Sapienza University in Rome, that brings together a Palestinian University, Al Quds, and three Israeli universities, Haifa, Hebrew and Tel Aviv with support from UNESCO and the Italian Development Cooperation (DGCS) in Jerusalem. [1] This latest joint Palestinian-Israeli academic project is a clear violation of the Palestinian criteria for the academic boycott of Israel, which are widely supported by Palestinian civil society.[2] Its timing can only confirm the suspicion that it is intended to relieve Israel’s increasing isolation — after its criminal attack on the Gaza-bound Freedom Flotilla that led to the murder of humanitarian relief and human rights activists — and to help whitewash the entrenched complicity of the Israeli academy in Israel’s ongoing occupation, colonization and apartheid.

Al-Quds University’s participation in this project violates its own University Council”s decision taken in February 2009 to suspend all academic cooperation with Israeli universities until significant progress is made towards ending the Israeli occupation. In a statement issued as a response to Israel’s massacre in Gaza, Al-Quds University’s Council stated that: “Ending academic cooperation [with all Israeli universities] is aimed at, first of all, pressuring Israel to abide by a solution that ends the occupation, a solution that has been needed for far too long and that the international community has stopped demanding.” [3] It also violates the standing principle of non-cooperation with Israeli universities adopted and repeatedly reaffirmed by the Palestinian Council for Higher Education. [4]

The Italian Development Cooperation’s involvement in this project is offensive to Palestinian civil society in general and to the Palestinian academy in particular. In 2007, PACBI issued an appeal to diplomatic missions placed in Jerusalem that stated:

At a time when the international movement to isolate Israel is gaining ground in response to the escalation of Israel’s apartheid policies, we at PACBI respectfully urge all diplomatic missions, particularly those based in Jerusalem, to refrain from supporting — in any form — Palestinian-Israeli encounters or joint projects that are not explicitly dedicated to ending Israel’s illegal occupation and other forms of oppression. Such meetings and projects only contribute to the prolongation of injustice by normalizing and thereby legitimizing it, and inadvertently support Israel”s efforts to appear as a “normal” participant in the “civilized” world of science, scholarship and art irrespective of the fact that it is practicing a pernicious form of apartheid against Palestinians. [5]

UNESCO”s persistent promotion of projects with Israeli universities can only help them cover up their historic partnership with the State’s military and security establishment in planning, justifying and perpetuating Israel’s decades-old violations of international law and fundamental Palestinian rights. At a time when international public opinion is increasingly calling for ending the impunity of Israel and its complicit institutions, especially after the Flotilla attack, UNESCO is providing support, and therefore legitimacy, for these same institutions.

UNESCO has a long record of collusion in covering up Israel”s occupation and apartheid. In 2008, the Organization added with fanfare the city of Tel Aviv to its World Heritage List, [6] in sharp contrast to its failure over decades to take any effective measures to hold Israel accountable for its wilful and systematic destruction of hundreds of ancient Palestinian sites, including tens of mosques and churches, during the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing campaign of 1947-1949, and ever since. That gratuitous reward to Israel came on the heels of its massive war of aggression on Lebanon in 2006, which killed over one thousand civilians, and its devastating bloodbath in Gaza during the same year. It ignored altogether the fact that the Israeli government in Tel Aviv had imposed an illegal and cruel siege on 1.5 million Palestinians in the occupied Gaza Strip, a crime that was described by UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Prof. Richard Falk, as constituting “slow genocide.” The fact that Israel was during that period intensifying the construction of its illegal colonial settlements and Wall, forcibly dispossessing and displacing tens of thousands of Palestinians in a new chapter of the ongoing Nakba, did not seem to impress UNESCO. Instead of applying its mandate without bias, UNESCO chose to praise Israel and spearhead efforts to rehabilitate its membership in UN bodies.

Earlier, in 2002, during Israel’s invasion of West Bank cities and refugee camps, the Israeli occupation forces destroyed many historic sites, some of which were on the UNESCO List, without warranting any effective intervention from the Organization to stop the destruction or to bring Israel to account. These sites included Nablus”s Khadra Mosque, established in 1250; its ancient soap factories built during the Ottoman era; its Roman Orthodox Monastery, built during the Roman era 1700 years ago; its Yasminah neighbourhood, mostly built 200 years ago; and parts of its 500-year old Kasbah, among many others. [7]

Only three years later, in 2005, UNESCO supported the establishment of the Israeli-Palestinian Science Organization (IPSO), placing itself at odds with the decision of the Palestinian Council for Higher Education which has repeatedly rejected “technical and scientific cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli universities.”[8] UNESCO”s sponsorship of IPSO also conflicted with the Palestinian call for boycotting Israeli academic institutions which was endorsed by tens of the most important unions, associations and organizations in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, including the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees.[9] By blessing IPSO, UNESCO effectively provided an international cover for a thinly veiled Israeli attempt to improve its image, or “brand,” in the world and its status in UN organizations without having to comply with international law or respect UN-sanctioned Palestinian rights.

UNESCO”s support for this latest joint Palestinian-Israeli Master”s program, coming weeks after the Flotilla attack and a year and a half after Israel”s massacre in Gaza of over 1,400 Palestinians, predominantly civilians and its destruction of the science building, among others, at the Islamic University along with scores of primary and secondary schools in the Strip, is yet another indicator of the moral failure of the Organization to uphold its ethical principles consistently, without double standard.

The purported excuse for such projects, that science and arts should be above politics and that cooperation in these fields brings “peace” closer, is ahistorical; it conflicts with the time-honored logic that has motivated and animated decades of international struggle against academic and cultural complicity in human rights violations. Emanating from an organization that should know better than most from its long history that such a claim is patently false makes it all the more surprising. UNESCO, after all, had the honor of leading the struggle in the UN to isolate South African apartheid in the 70″s and 80″s of the last century [10]. One can only wonder how it now claims to separate science and culture from human rights and thereby colludes in perpetuating Israeli apartheid and colonial oppression.

Joint Palestinian-Israeli projects that claim to be apolitical are the most blatantly politicized since they deliberately disregard the context of colonial oppression and misleadingly imply the possibility of achieving peace without addressing the root causes of conflict. Ostensibly apolitical collaborations actually substitute the transient, superficial gestures of peace for the real struggle needed to achieve a just and lasting peace. Consequently, they fail to serve the cause of peace.

Israeli academic institutions, with which UNESCO is partnering, are implicated in the structures of domination in many ways, both historically and in the present. They bear substantial responsibility for planning, justifying and perpetuating the state”s colonial and apartheid policies and the consequent dispossession of the Palestinian people.

Tel Aviv University (TAU), for instance, is notorious for its deep and well documented collaboration with the Israeli military and intelligence establishment and its refusal to acknowledge the fact that it was built mostly on the grounds of an ethnically cleansed and bulldozed Palestinian village. A comprehensive report by researchers at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London presents strong evidence of TAU”s intensive, purposive and open institutional cooperation with the Israeli military establishment [11]. From the design of weapon systems used against civilians in Gaza to the development of the military doctrine of targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure with “disproportionate force,” TAU is deeply implicated in Israel”s war crimes committed in Gaza.

According to the SOAS report: “[T]here is nothing unique about state institutions being implicated in the pursuit of state objectives, including security-related objectives. The tense military mobilisation of Jewish-Israeli society, its constant-war footing, and the closely related knowledge of circles which compose the defence research and development community in this comparatively small country, together amplify the role played by academic institutions in military affairs. TAU, as the largest university in Israel, is, unremarkably, at the centre of this militarization…. Ultimately, …this collusion with the military amounts to the commissioning of war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

The Alternative Information Centre recently issued a comprehensive study on the Israeli academy”s complicity with the state”s system of oppression against the Palestinian people. Among other important findings, the study states:

Israeli universities have adopted this consensus [the legitimacy of the Israeli army actions] by accepting into their ranks former members of the Israeli security services, without regard for the problematic aspects of their possible actions in past positions….. Carmi Gilon”s past as Director of the General Security Services, an organization especially notorious for torture and human rights abuses of Palestinians, and who is accused by various organizations of committing war crimes, did not cause Hebrew University to reconsider appointing him to the post of Vice-President for External Affairs. These appointments of former high-ranking officers in the Israeli security services would seem very natural in the Israeli mainstream context, where they enjoy a great deal of prestige…. [12]

Hebrew University, it is worth noting, has one of its campuses built almost entirely on occupied Palestinian land in Jerusalem, linking the University with violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention. [13]

A recent announcement by Haifa University has celebrated the university”s successful bid for an Israeli army tender to continue training students at the army”s College for National Security for post-graduate studies. Haifa University Rector Professor Yossi Ben Artzi proclaimed that his university is “proud to continue being the academic home for the security forces… the winning bid was made possible thanks to close cooperation between the School of Political Studies, Office of the President of the University, Office of the Rector and the Faculty of Social Sciences.” [14]

Specific violations aside, Israel is a state that imposes a regime on the indigenous Palestinian people comprising occupation, colonization and apartheid; [15] why does UNESCO find it worthy of its generous support or special tribute? And is it not time for Al-Quds University to close ranks with other Palestinian universities in rejecting cooperation with complicit Israeli institutions? Surely the paltry benefits of such cooperation cannot take precedence over principles and the struggle for justice for Palestinians.


[1] http://www.esteri.it/MAE/EN/Sala_Stampa/ArchivioNotizie/Approfondimenti/2010/06/20100624_cooperazione_palestinesi_israeliani.htm
[2] http://www.pacbi.org/etemplate.php?id=1108
[3] http://www.maannews.net/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=208272
[4] The Palestinian Council for Higher Education, composed of heads of Palestinian universities and representatives from the community, has, since the 1990″s, adhered to its principled position of rejecting “technical and scientific cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli universities” until Israel ends its occupation; this position was reiterated in a statement of thanks to the UK academic union NATFHE for adopting the academic boycott of Israel in 2006: http://www.mohe.gov.ps/ENG/news/index.html#7
[5] http://www.pacbi.org/etemplate.php?id=1048
[6] http://pacbi.org/etemplate.php?id=669
[7] Land Research Center (Jerusalem), Extra ordinary violations committed by the Israeli occupation forces in Nablus, West Bank, 12 April 2002. http://www.lrcj.org/Eng/site.php
[8] http://pacbi.org/etemplate.php?id=977
[9] http://pacbi.org/etemplate.php?id=869
[10] For a listing of the eight UNESCO sponsored seminars and conferences against apartheid South Africa, organized between 1975 and 1991, see: http://www.anc.org.za/un/conf.html
[11] http://www.electronicintifada.net/downloads/pdf/090708-soas-palestine-society.pdf
[12] http://www.alternativenews.org/images/stories/downloads/Economy_of_the_occupation_23-24.pdf
[13] http://pacbi.org/etemplate.php?id=11
[14] http://wordpress.haifa.ac.il/?p=2642 (Hebrew). See also: http://www.alternativenews.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2677:haifa-university-proud-to-be-academic-home-of-israeli-security-forces&catid=119:english&Itemid=878
[15] http://bdsmovement.net/files/English-BNC_Position_Paper-Durban_Review.pdf

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