Academia, Arms and Occupation: How Tel Aviv University Serves the Interests of the Israeli Military and the Arms Industry

A few months ago, the Tech Career Fair was held at Tel Aviv University. This is an annual event where various high-tech companies are invited to set up booths on campus and try to convince students that working for them is a first step towards a successful career. Alongside giant corporations such as Apple, Cisco, Amazon and Samsung, the university has also guest [Israeli] the arms companies Rafael, IAI, Bet Shemesh Engines, the Negev Nuclear Research Center and Elbit Systems, as well as the Israeli intelligence organizations: the Shin Bet and the Mossad.

Each of the booths was laden with snacks and branded souvenirs, which the companies handed out in exchange for a few minutes from the students, during which the company representatives promised high pay, challenging and satisfying projects and opportunities for advancement within the hierarchy of the organization. Representatives were less eager to discuss the products their companies are developing.

IAI representatives, who ran a sweet popcorn stand, did not mention that the drones produced by the company carried out targeted and precise operations attacks against civilians in Gaza, or served the European Union in locating and blocking refugees. The company’s warm welcome to Min Aung Hlaing, the general who seized control of Myanmar in a military coup last year, while visiting Israel, went unmentioned. After the visit, the IAI and the United States sold attack boats in Hlaing, despite being armed embargo imposed by the European Union because of reliable reports about the atrocities committed by the army under Hlaing’s command against the Rohingya minority.

Four months before Hlaing’s visit, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum warned that Myanmar is about to commit genocide against the Rohingyas. In 2017, two months before the signing of the attack boat sales agreement, a delegation said Myanmar’s armed forces were waging a “calculated campaign of terror” in an effort to cleanse the state of the Rohingya minority.

In the Elbit Systems stand, one could receive a thermos and branded coffee, but one did not learn that Elbit Systems is responsible for deploying surveillance equipment along the separation wall, which was erected in order to of Annex parts of the West Bank to Israel, and to allow the clearing of those areas of Palestinian residents.

Israel’s wars are also fueled by weapons produced by the company. The IDF relies on Elbit Systems to produce more lethal weapons than external suppliers. According to media reports, Elbit Systems undertook the production of artillery guns for the IDF instead of the German KMW. Although KMW won the tender, the army chose Elbit Systems because of fears that Germany would ban its guns from being used to fire cluster bombs, following the bombardment of villages from southern Lebanon in 2006, that a commander of an artillery unit later describe as “mad and monstrous”.

The ties between Tel Aviv University and Elbit Systems go beyond an annual invitation to the tech job fair. Since 2018, the university has invited students from the exact sciences and engineering departments to more than fifteen different events organized by Elbit Systems with the aim of recruiting employees. Events included a Hanukkah party, Women’s Day and an Alice in Wonderland-inspired tech challenge.

In addition to these events, the university and Elbit Systems operated the InnoBit program over the past five years. For students, InnoBit is an engineering course that counts as a final project and grants academic credit. For Elbit Systems, it is a tool for recruiting employees and subsidizing technological developments. All program participants are required to sign a non-disclosure agreement with Elbit Systems, and commit in advance to grant an “exclusive worldwide license without payment to Elbit Systems to use the intellectual property [developed within the project] without any limitation in the fields of operation of Elbit System which are: military, paramilitary and internal security.

This isn’t the only way Elbit Systems is harnessing advances in academic research to generate profits. In 2019, after Tel Aviv University’s engineering department demonstrated the tools it developed at AU&R [Autonomous Unmanned Systems and Robotics] gun show, Cooperation between the university and Elbit Systems started in the field of autonomous drone navigation. Senior university staff also support the company. The university organized many meetings between senior Elbit Systems executives and faculty to expose Elbit Systems to “breakthrough new innovations” in cyber and aerospace propulsion, to “facilitate the transfer of technology from research institution to an industrial company to develop revolutionary products”.

Legal investigation revealed that cyber tools produced by Elbit Systems and sold to Ethiopia were used to spy on opposition members, and there is extensive documentation of the use of Elbit’s aircraft against civilians – as in the case of murder of four [Palestinian] children on Gaza beach during the 2014 Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip (Operation Protective Edge). It is very possible that these crimes, and crimes for which Elbit Systems will be responsible in the future, were made possible through the support of Tel Aviv University.

In addition to the warm relationship between the arms companies and the university, the latter plays an important role in shaping Israel’s security doctrine. The IDF Code of Ethics has been developed and maintained in Cooperation with Professor Emeritus Asa Kasher, former Chair of Professional Ethics and Philosophy of Practice. Kosher provided a complex academic training analysis, that the amount of damage caused to the civilian population during Operation Accountability (1993) was “legitimate and in a precise dosage”. More than 90% of the victims of the operation were civilians whom the IDF attacked with the declared with the aim of terrorizing the population of southern Lebanon, in order to induce a flow of refugees towards Beirut.

The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), which is attached to Tel Aviv University, also exerts significant influence on Israeli security policy. The institute hires retired IDF officers and maintains close ties with politicians and generals. After the Second Lebanon War, the institute promoted the principles of the “Dahiya Doctrine” (named after the Shiite neighborhood in southern Beirut), which has guided operations in Gaza since 2008. In an article published by the former chief of the National Security Council Giora Eiland on behalf of the INSS, he Explain that the IDF must win wars by “destroying homes and infrastructure and causing suffering to hundreds of thousands of people”.

Another contribution of academia to the mechanisms of occupation is more direct: training soldiers for complex missions requiring professional knowledge through the programs of the academic reserve. The academic reserve of the faculty of law trains lawyers for the general counsel of the armies, who practices whitewashing [Israel’s] war crimes and avoiding international monitoring mechanisms. One of the graduates of Tel Aviv University’s academic reserve program is Professor Gabriella Blum, who laid the groundwork for legal authorization of extrajudicial executions through her work at the military attorney general. Blum determined that every Palestinian identified as a member of an armed organization “is a legitimate target and can be shot in the back while sleeping”.

The Israeli university in general, and the University of Tel Aviv in particular, therefore participate in Israel’s occupation and war mechanisms at all levels: shaping the military doctrine and the code of ethics that make it possible to intentionally target civilians, developing the technology that enables the execution of this doctrine as accurately as possible, and finally – providing legal defense against charges of war crimes.

This article was originally published in the “Kol Hastudentim” and “Zo Haderechmagazines in Hebrew in April 2022. It is translated by Shir Hever with the permission of the author.

Michael A. Bynum