As exemplified by Ben-Gurion University

How collaborations with Israeli universities make UU complicit in war crimes

Ben-Gurion_University_of_the_Negev_Aerial_View foto Wikipedia
Ben-Gurion University photo Wikipedia

Imagine UU shared its Science Park with military units directly involved in slaughtering tens of thousands of civilians less than forty kilometers away. For us, this is a hypothetical scenario. For the staff and students at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, this is reality. Their university shares its campus with military “technological units, Israeli Air Force units, and the headquarters of the military’s Southern Command, responsible for dealing with threats from Gaza”. 

Since 2023, UU has official institutional ties with Ben-Gurion University which – like all Israeli universities – closely collaborates with the Israeli military and Israeli weapons companies. This is why UU students and staff have been demanding that our university cut its institutional ties with Ben-Gurion University as well as all other Israeli academic institutions. Following the guidelines of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), the demand is not the “ending or freezing [of] all contacts”, as the UU Executive Board’s statement from 15 May 2024 implies, but the suspension of all institutional ties.

How does Ben-Gurion University collaborate with Israeli military corporations? 
Ben-Gurion University maintains close research and business connections with several Israeli military corporations through its Homeland Security Institute and its technology transfer company BGN Technologies, which “conducts research for companies wishing to take advantage of [Ben-Gurion University]’s expertise and facilities”. These companies include Israel Aerospace Industries, Elbit Systems, and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. In 2019, Ben-Gurion University and Rafael signed a multi-year research collaboration after the company decided to open an R&D center at the university’s Advanced Technologies Park. 

At the center’s opening, Ben-Gurion University President Daniel Chamovitz explained: “Our partnership with Rafael is total, and I am 100 per cent certain that our students will find work here”. When Elbit Systems opened a new lab at the Advanced Technologies Park in March 2024, the company stated that it maintained “a close relationship with academia [that] extends beyond simple collaboration. We actively transform academic research into practical applications…Students involved in our projects earn academic credit for their work, creating a mutually advantageous connection”. Since November 2023, the Israeli military has been testing new weapons developed by Elbit Systems and Rafael in its ongoing war in Gaza. In fact, Palestine serves as a laboratory where these technologies are tested before being commercialized and exported elsewhere, meaning UU’s complicity in violence extends beyond Gaza.

How does Ben-Gurion University collaborate with the Israeli military? 
Ben-Gurion University has long formed a central part of what one official of the Israeli Ministry of Defense referred to as “the academia-defense ecosystem…in the Negev region”. In 2019, officials opened the first building of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Technology Campus adjacent to the university’s Advanced Technologies Park. In his speech, Chamovitz celebrated the occasion and the university’s close cooperation with the Israeli military:

"The future growth and development of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev into the North Campus is intimately tied to our growing relationship with the nascent IDF technology and intelligence bases springing up in and around Beer-Sheva…The dedication of the first building of the IDF’s new tech campus is the harbinger of great developments that will bring thousands of outstanding soldiers to this base, many of whom will also complete degrees at [Ben-Gurion University] in parallel with their service…I am looking forward to watching the rest of the army’s tech campus grow, and of course to overseeing [Ben-Gurion University]’s collaboration with the military as the units themselves move south."

In his speech, an Israeli Ministry of Defense official in turn explained, “To create the smart campus we are bringing innovative technologies that will serve the needs of thousands of soldiers from the most elite IDF units…This infrastructure has the ability to reinforce the military’s operational capabilities”. In his 2023 Report – coinciding with the official start of UU’s collaboration with Ben-Gurion University – Chamovitz noted:

"Central to the University's strategy for growth is strengthening our connections with key IDF…technology units – in intelligence, communications and cybersecurity. Over a decade of planning and collaboration are finally paying off, as the first of several IDF schools and specialized units have relocated to the University’s Advanced Technologies Park and the surrounding areas."

What “innovative technologies” are these “specialized units” developing?
One example is the devastating AI-based program “Lavender” developed by the Israeli military intelligence Unit 8200, which operates out of Ben-Gurion University’s Advanced Technologies Park. An investigation by +972 and Local Call revealed that, during the early stages of its most recent war on Gaza, the Israeli military “almost completely relied on Lavender, which clocked as many as 37,000 Palestinians as suspected militants – and their homes – for possible air strikes”. 

In the first weeks of the war, the Israeli military also decided “that, for every junior Hamas operative that Lavender marked, it was permissible to kill up to 15 or 20 civilians”. Lavender joined another AI-based system, “The Gospel”, which, according to a former Israeli intelligence officer, has facilitated a “mass assassination factory” in Gaza. (In the President’s Report 2024, Ben-Gurion University’s Vice President Dan Blumberg, who also serves on the Board of Directors of BGN Technologies, announced that the university had set up a new “training center” in partnership with the Israeli military’s Intelligence Division and the alumni association of Unit 8200.)

What are UU’s connections with Ben-Gurion University?
Since April 2023, UU has maintained close institutional ties with Ben-Gurion University through a five-year ERC-funded research project of 10 million euros. The two other partner universities include Leiden University as well as the University of British Columbia, where staff and students have also been protesting for an academic boycott of Israeli universities. As the project investigates “pathways of resilience and evasion of tipping in ecosystems”, an important and urgent task, it is not the research itself that is an issue here. 

We also do not mean to imply that any of the researchers involved in the project actively support Ben-Gurion University’s close collaboration with the Israeli military and its continued onslaught on Gaza. Rather, the issue with our university’s institutional ties to Israeli universities is threefold: material, ethical, and reputational. Financially, Israeli universities benefit from continued collaborations with European universities, such as through ERC subsidies. 

In this instance, Ben-Gurion University receives  2,5 million euros for its participation in the UU-led ERC project, making it the second biggest beneficiary after UU. At the same time, UU’s official partnership legitimizes Ben-Gurion University’s cooperation with the Israeli military and Israeli weapons companies, and the university’s central role in developing weapons technologies used in Gaza. 

Lastly, our university’s institutional collaboration with Ben-Gurion University is fundamentally at odds with UU’s strategic theme of Institutions of Open Societies, which focuses on the question of how institutions – presumably including our own university – “contribute to long-term prosperity, equality and democracy”. 

In this light, UU must cut institutional ties with Ben-Gurion University and all other Israeli universities until they end their ongoing and active complicity in Israel’s genocidal actions and oppression of Palestinians. Other universities, such as Trinity College Dublin and all Spanish universities, have already decided to do so. So why not UU?

*For any readers wanting to learn more about Israel’s “university-military-industrial complex”, we highly recommend Maya Wind’s book Towers of Ivory and Steel: How Israeli Universities Deny Palestinian Freedom (Verso, 2024).