The road right outside Ariel settlement's university (Photo: Alex Kane/Mondoweiss)
The Israeli students who attend Ariel University, a school deep in the occupied West Bank, are upset that the American Embassy did not see fit to invite them to attend Barack Obama's big speech on Thursday. But they remain pleased at the fact that the president is coming to Israel, even though they are being left out. Conversations with about ten different students this afternoon at Ariel University, Israel's first settlement college, provided a snapshot of an Israeli public that is buoyed by the Obama visit--a visit they see as affirming the importance of the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
Both the Israeli and American governments are intent on making Barack Obama's visit to the country a smooth affair, with symbolic events planned to highlight how Obama has cemented the Israeli-U.S. alliance. But the perceived snub of settler students has provoked controversy. Last week, news broke that the U.S. had invited students from Israeli universities to attend Obama's speech at the Jerusalem Convention Center on Thursday. But Ariel's students did not receive any invites, and Israeli Knesset members immediately blasted the move.
The American Embassy denies it was a boycott of Ariel, a mega-settlement 11 miles into occupied Palestinian territory that boasts a population of 18,000 people. The U.S. government insists that they only invited students from universities that had partnerships or joint programs with the American embassy.
That reasoning, though, didn't reach the students who attend the school, which was granted university status in a controversial move that served as a signal that Israel had no intention of giving up Ariel, a major sticking point in negotiations, in a future peace deal. Students from the settler university have already protested the perceived Obama snub.
"Israel sees us a university, so why shouldn't they [the U.S.] think of us" as a university, asked Tali Koolyk, an American-Israeli resident of Ariel. Koolyk, a young American from Rockland County, New York, said she attended Zionist summer camp and always wanted to live in Israel, though she insisted she was not political. She told Mondoweiss that "Ariel should be a part" of Obama's speech.
Students hang out and relax inside Ariel University (Photo: Alex Kane/Mondoweiss)
24-year-old Moti Asulin, an economics and business student who spends most of his week in Ariel in dormitories, expressed a similar sentiment. "I was wondering why-- what the main reason was why most of the students at most of the universities, like Bar-Ilan and Tel Aviv, they can go to hear Obama and we can't," he said as we sat outside a restaurant at the university. "But I know the reason: because it's not in Israel...it's out of the Green Line. I heard about that, and I was sad, but what can I do?"
Despite those feelings, the students said they were happy that Obama was coming to visit anyway. "It's exciting," said Koolyk, who nonetheless said that her feelings about Obama aren't "the best feelings."
The feelings of excitement were also shared by some of the Palestinian students who attend Ariel, though only Palestinian citizens of Israel are allowed to enroll in the school. "It's a very important visit," said Kareem Rabi, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who expressed support for the idea of a one-state solution. Rabi hoped that Obama would use the visit to help solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--though the Obama administration has already made it clear that the president will not be pushing for a peace settlement on his trip.
Sitting on the steps smoking a cigarette was a stocky 31-year-old named Eli Galila, who also was upset that Obama did not invite students from Ariel University. Still, he waxed poetic about the U.S.-Israeli relationship. "I like President Obama," said Galila. "When he start, a lot of people thought it was going to be a problem for Israel. But we see that he's a nice guy, that he's a good man, and he take care about us...We are living in a difficult area, we have a lot of problems." When I asked what those problems were, he said "with the Muslims...We fight with them. You live in New York--we live in Israel...We need to be strong because the Arabs don't like us."
32-year-old Dudu Hakshuri, another economics major, also praised Obama. He said that "President Obama is a good leader" and that the "relationship between Israel and the U.S. is very important for us as country." Asked about the fact that Obama isn't going to be bringing a peace plan with him, Hakshuri said: "This is realistic...Now is not the time...Maybe in 100 years."
Like some other students, Hakshuri denied that there's an occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, and said that the Palestinians "don't accept" that Israeli Jews are here to stay. Another student who lives in the settlement of Ariel, Daniel Koritny, said that he "doesn't give a shit about" what other countries say about Israel and claimed that since "the Arabs"--he said Palestine was an "invented country"--lost "territory," it's all "ours." Koritny supports Israeli MK Naftali Bennet's plan to annex Area C of the West Bank and wants Israel to "take it all"--except Gaza.
As I spoke with students from Ariel University, upbeat music blared while merchants sold jewelry and other goods to those walking by. Students sat in the sun, chatting with each other, and university had an aura of normalcy about it. There was no sign the settlement was over the Green Line, no sign that it was an illegal colony. And the fact that the school was granted accreditation by the Israeli government, a first for a university in a settlement, was a sign of just how normal Israel wants to make the situation, and the settlements, in the occupied West Bank seem.
But Ariel is particularly exceptional, even in a West Bank full of various illegal colonies. The colony of Ariel juts deep into the West Bank, and impedes Palestinian freedom of movement and contiguity. Built on stolen Palestinian land, Ariel sits on top of a large aquifer that supplies water to both Israelis and Palestinians. Under the Oslo Accords, 80 percent of the water from what is known as the Mountain Aquifer goes to Israelis, while 20 percent is used by Palestinians--a ratio that exposes the unequal system of Israeli control that the Oslo Accords enshrined.
On the way to Ariel from Jerusalem, my car passed the separation wall, with Ramallah in the distance, and various Israeli army checkpoints. I also passed Ofer Prison, with its foreboding and monstrous wall with an Israeli flag on top of it. The prison, a site where Palestinians have protested atrecently in support of hunger strikers and against administrative detention, was a clear sign of Israeli occupation. And it was a brazen reminder that the West Bank's apartheid system is not normal at all--and neither is Ariel.