Ariel University Center of Samaria, a school located in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, may be granted permanent status by Israel next month. As a full-fledged university, the school could better support its growing population by expanding programs and receiving Israeli government funding.
But granting the school's new status could escalate already high tensions between Palestinians and Israelis in the Ariel region.
"Most dramatically, this has a symbolic significance that no settlement has," said Hebrew University political scientist Yaron Ezrahi. "It's an attempt to legitimize the occupation."
The Israeli government granted Ariel University temporary recognition five years ago. But its status will expire next month. Many Israelis in the region want full recognition for the school. They say the campus, as well as the surrounding area, will benefit from the change. But because the university is located within an Israeli settlement, critics say that by upgrading the school's status, Israel would be taking a step towards annexing territory that is not rightfully theirs.
"Any step of this kind would be a further consolidation of illegal settlements," said Palestinian spokesman Ghassan Khatib.
Occupants in the Ariel area are not concerned about the tensions over the university. Ariel is approximately 11 miles east of the Green Line, so many residents consider their settlement a part of Israel already.
"Ariel is not controversial. It's not a far-flung settlement,'' Eran Hershkowitz, a builder living in Ariel, told the Christian Science Monitor. Hershkowitz, like many others who live in the area, see the university as an important part of the city since it brings in as many as 12,000 students each year.
Annexing Ariel would take out a large portion of the West Bank, land the Palestinians say Israel has no right to. But Israel has been expanding Ariel with new home developments, a sports complex, and the university. The expansion puts pressure on peace talks that recently resumed after a long hiatus that began in December 2008.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have been meeting quietly for the past few weeks to discuss border agreements and make peaceful resolutions that will last. Palestine has demanded Israel accept its pre-1967 borders and halt development in the West Bank before talks can continue. Israeli representatives say that Palestine should not come to the table with already fixed conditions.
Israeli academics have criticized the move to upgrade the college to university status. They say the move is purely political, with no concern for Israel's academia. About 155 academics signed a petition opposing the move: "We, academics from a variety of fields and from all the institutions of higher learning in Israel, herein express publicly our opposition to the continued occupation and the establishment of settlements," the petition states.
Some professors fear the fight over Ariel will only add to the furor fueling an international boycott of Israeli universities. If the boycott grows, it will affect all Israeli universities, not just Ariel and the West Bank, the professors say.
But supporters of the university do not fear international opposition. The Ariel community is pushing for recognition, claiming that the university exists and is prosperous whether recognized or not.
"Ariel is here to stay," settlement leader Naftali Bennett said. "There's no reason to treat it differently from Tel Aviv.Long ago, it should have become a university."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.