Armed Forces Guarding Students: Israeli Army to Open Base in a University

The military will be permitted to install security and computer systems that will be accessible solely to it, in any building it so chooses, and screen employees - meaning it could distance Arab lecturers, cleaners or or maintenance workers

Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich
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Haifa University this month.
Haifa University this month.Credit: ערן גילווארג
Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich

The Israeli army issued a request for bids from universities for the right to host a prestigious military academic program which, for the first time, would require the academic institutions to allow the army to establish de facto military bases on their campuses.

Israeli universities run numerous programs with the IDF in which soldiers earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees but the army’s latest request for bids to host its Havatzalot program – an elite academic program for future intelligence officers – contains numerous conditions that university officials say are extreme and would “undermine the academic fabric and the privacy of students and faculty.”

The Havatzalot program has been hosted by the University of Haifa since its founding 14 years ago, but sources who have seen the tender documents issued in October say they are much more demanding in terms of the army’s intervention in content, conditions and even personnel.

The Israel Defense Forces Spokesman said the requirements of the new tender are identical in nature to the terms in the past.

But according to the request for bids, the living quarters of the soldier-students and IDF staff members must be within the campus or no more than 1.25 kilometers from its main entrance; students and staffers’ living quarters must be adjacent or no more than 500 meters apart. The students cannot be housed in the regular student dorms for security reasons, the document says.

The security requirements are also much stricter than before, with armed guards required 24/7 in all the areas the soldier-students will be found. No unauthorized university personnel will be allowed into the soldiers’ or IDF staff’s quarters; entry will be by biometric pass only. Any windows facing outside of the compound must have bars on them. Within the living quarters, the army will provide security, and the army reserves the right to secure any other area of the university campus it deems necessary.

In theory, the institutions should be rushing to contend for the prestigious program: It would bring hundreds of students who have undergone meticulous screening and who upon completing their military service would presumably enter key positions in high-tech and in the country’s political and financial leadership, bringing prestige to their alma mater. Their tuition payments are guaranteed, and they would help fill courses that are losing students, like Middle East history, sociology and even philosophy.

The winning university will be required to install security cameras that cover the living and staff quarters as well as the communications installation to be built there. The cameras must be connected to the university’s security control room and to guard posts in all the areas where the soldiers can be found. In consultation with the university, the IDF will be permitted to install security and computer systems that will be accessible solely to the IDF in any building it so chooses.

Another controversial requirement is that the university must submit to the IDF the personal details of anyone the university employs to secure the outer perimeter of the soldiers’ living and administrative quarters, as well as the maintenance employees.

“This is a very problematic clause,” said a university department head. “If there’s an Arab lecturer, cleaner, or maintenance worker, then the army has the right to distance him?” The answer, in fact, is yes: According to the documents, the IDF has the right to demand the replacement of anyone employed in the soldiers’ compound if they don’t pass a security screening.

The tender also requires the university to have an armed force on standby in the event of a break-in or security incident involving the soldiers’ compound, and demands that the university “allow the existence of a ‘minimal military unit’ for guarding and field security” within the institution.

Some 600 students and dozens of IDF staff members are expected to take part in the program. It won’t be hard to tell them apart from other students: According to the documents, the students will be wearing army uniforms and may be carrying their personal weapons.

“We believe that studying in uniform causes a marked pedagogical difficulty and makes it difficult for the students to integrate socially into university life,” said one university representative. “We are asking that the decision to have students come to class in uniform be reconsidered.” The request was refused.

The soldier-students will sleep two to a room and the university will have to maintain strict separation between the soldiers’ and staff quarters (as is customary in the army), between the different classes (students from different years cannot live on the same floor), and gender separation – with men and women also on different floors. The army is also demanding six additional rooms in the living compound for classrooms (where there won’t be gender separation), a club room and 10 offices for the command staff, a conference room, gym, library and more.

One of the most bothersome demands as far as the universities are concerned relates to the relationship between the teachers and students, which will pose “an ethical problem,” as one senior university official put it. The IDF is insisting that course lecturers provide the IDF with details about student achievements, including grades and attendance records, subject to the soldiers signing privacy waivers to this effect. The commander of the program will be able to speak to the faculty about students without their knowledge.

The IDF Spokesman said that "the conditions of the current tender are substantively identical to the tender on which the program has been based since its establishment. Given that the Havatzalot program has been successfully operating for the past 14 years, the amazement over [the conditions] at this stage is surprising and beside the point. It should be stressed that the conditions of the tender were approved in writing by the Council of Higher Education, which after a careful evaluation gave its backing to the program and said there is nothing in it that undermines academic freedom in any way. It should also be stressed that in contrast to what is claimed, students in the program will not be carrying weapons on the university campus.”

The first class of the new version of Havatzalot is meant to begin studying during the coming academic year (October 2019); the agreement with the school will be in effect until the end of the 2021/22 academic year, with an option to extend it for two more years. The students in the program study for three years and earn a double major bachelor's degree, and then serve another six years as intelligence officers.

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