EU-funded Helsinki University Hospital project connected to Israel’s illegal settlement?

The breast cancer project BOUNCE, funded by the European Union and led from Helsinki University Hospital (HUS) in Finland, apparently has connections with Ariel University. Ariel University is located in an illegal Israeli settlement on the Occupied Palestinian Territories. In BOUNCE materials the location of the university is identified as Israel. BOUNCE coordinator Paula Poikonen-Saksela demands that suspicions about the project’s research activities in or funding to Ariel University are not raised in public. References to cooperation have been scrubbed from the BOUNCE webpage.

Israeli apartheid is a controversial topic. However, on one issue there is wide agreement: Israel’s settlements on the Occupied Palestinian Territories are illegal under international law.

During the presidency of Donald Trump in 2019, the United States government announced that it doesn’t consider the settlements illegal. Israel has not managed to get any other states to officially recognise the settlements. The European Union and many members states, including Finland, have repeatedly and clearly condemned the settlements and affirmed that they are not part of Israel. This has not stopped the EU from continuing to support the settlements for example by allowing imports from them, despite the fact that this is contrary to international law. Nevertheless, the EU is slowly moving on the issue.

In 2013 the European Commission issued guidelines according to which EU funding cannot be given to entities operating in the settlements nor to activities carried out in the settlements. However, adherence is not properly monitored. In March 2021 over 500 European and Israeli academics published an open letter in Times Higher Education, criticising EU funding for projects that involve the settlements. As one example they mentioned the connections of the HUS project BOUNCE with Ariel University.

Raija-Leena Punamäki-Gitai, professor of psychology at the University of Tampere, Finland, says she signed the letter because “Ariel University is part of Israel’s settlement policy, which is unambiguously contrary to international law”. She mentions the flipside of any scientific activity in the settlements: “At the same time that Israel builds settlements, it restricts the freedom of movement and international collaboration of Palestinian students and researchers, and the operation of Palestinian universities”.

Ariel University is the only Israeli university that is completely located on the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The Israeli army founded it in 1982 as part of the military administration. In 2018 the university was moved under civilian authority. Palestinian civil society, trade unions and the Palestinian Authority have called on states, institutions and individual academics to not have any ties with Ariel.

Cooperation with Ariel University has been criticised internationally, and it is controversial even in Israel. In mid-April the Israeli Minister of Education Yoav Gallant barred the Israeli mathematician from being awarded the Israel Prize in part because he had signed the Times Higher Education letter. Calling to boycott the settlements is illegal in Israel.

When asked about connections with Ariel, project coordinator Paula Poikonen-Saksela from HUS replies: “Ariel University is not a partner in BOUNCE and has not been funded from the project. No BOUNCE research has been carried out on forbidden territories.

According to Poikonen-Saksela, material about Ariel on the project webpage only concerned internal collaboration of Israeli researchers and data collection before the beginning of BOUNCE. “Mentioning Ariel University was not meant as an endorsement.” She says that all mentions of Ariel have now been removed from the project wepage. According to Poikonen-Saksela this was just a matter of mistakenly identifying professor Yaira Hamama‐Raz from Ariel University as a member of the project, and a mistake in the address of the university. In her reply Poikonen-Saksela demands that suspicions about project research in or funding to Ariel are not raised in public.

Indeed, all documents mentioning connections with Ariel disappeared from the BOUNCE webpage. Later some documents have been replaced with versions where Yaira Hamama‐Raz’s name has been removed.

It would require an audit to confirm whether the claim about BOUNCE not funding activities in Ariel is true. However, it is easy to confirm that Poikonen-Saksela’s claim that the webpage mentions of Ariel were only about the membership of Hamama-Raz and cooperation from before the project is false. This is possible because the material removed from the webpages remains accessible at Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

One BOUNCE document mentions Ariel University and Ariel Center for Applied Cancer Research (which is located in the same settlement) as stakeholders in Israel. The project started in 2017, when Ariel University was still under the rule of the Israeli military. The project webpage documents that Hamama-Raz presented a project dissemination event at Ariel University in June 2020. An official project lists Hamama-Raz not only as a member of the research project (as do other documents), but also as one of the authors of the report. She is listed as one of the chairs of a BOUNCE event held in Jerusalem in September 2019. Hamama-Raz mentions BOUNCE membership in her CV.

Hamama-Raz is the lead author of an article published in 2019, which the BOUNCE working package principal investigator Ruth Pat-Horenczyk has listed on Researchgate as part of BOUNCE. In the article Hamama-Raz’s affiliation and contact address for the article is given as Ariel University, which is claimed to be in Israel. Pat-Horenczyk presented the article as part of BOUNCE at a project event at the University of Helsinki in June 2019. She has also listed a conference paper from August 2020 co-authored with Hamama-Raz as part of BOUNCE. There Hamama-Raz’s institutional affiliation is given as Ariel University in Israel. The authors thank Poikonen-Saksela and acknowledge funding from BOUNCE.

Poikonen-Saksela emphasises that Hamama-Raz’s role is restricted to gathering data at Rabin Medical Center in Israel before the beginning of BOUNCE. She claims that Hamama-Raz works both at Rabin Medical Center and Ariel University. According to Hamama-Raz’s CV, her work at Rabin Medical Center concluded in 2005, and from 2009 her only affiliation has been Ariel University. In the international ORCID research database, Hamama-Raz lists Ariel University as her only affiliation.

When pressed for details, Poikonen-Saksela sticks to her claim that all mentions of Hamama-Raz as a member of BOUNCE and chair at a BOUNCE event are mistakes. According to her, the BOUNCE dissemination event covered on the BOUNCE webpages was not a BOUNCE event. She says that the mention of Ariel institutions as project stakeholders was about “general cancer treatment actors in different countries”.

Poikonen-Saksela does not answer the question how it is possible that a mistake like this is present in several different BOUNCE documents over the years. She also does not answer the question why Hamama-Raz is listed as an author of an official BOUNCE report. Instead Poikonen-Saksela says that she wishes that her claims are “honoured” as “indisputable facts”. Poikonen-Saksela says she has instructed Israeli members of the project to “carefully avoid” using the name BOUNCE if they collaborate with Ariel University.

Tuomas Lähdeoja, senior ward physician at HUS and one of the signatories of the Times Higher Education letter, comments on the issue from the point of view of research ethics: “Removing and changing documents has the embarrassing taste of sweeping things under the carpet. It would be principled and in line with the transparency required by good research conduct to clearly publicly say what Ariel’s participation is and is not about, and positively reject any cooperation. In a large project, the issue may seem unimportant, but whether or not you give the devil your little finger is a matter of principle.”

Complicity with the settlements is no minor issue. In March, the International Criminal Court opened an investigation into war crimes on the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and settlements were one of three focus areas of the preliminary investigation. Human Rights Watch has noted that because violations of human rights and international humanitarian law are intrinsic to Israel’s settlement policy, any business with the settlements inevitably contributes to and benefits from them. The same applies to research, which is also used to normalise annexation, regardless of whether it involves funding activities in the settlements.

Associate professor Saana Svärd says that Ariel University misleads researchers on purpose: “Ariel presents itself in nternational research contexts as a normal Israeli university. It is important to raise awareness of the fact that it is in many ways a problematic organisation.” Svärd heads the Academy of Finland Center of Excellence Ancient Near Eastern Empires at the University of Helsinki. She is one of the signatories of the Times Higher Education letter.

In March, Sirpa Pietikäinen (EPP) and other members of the European Parliament made a parliamentary question to the European Commission about EU funding to projects with activities in the settlements. They mentioned BOUNCE as an example.

Pietikäinen comments that “often projects like these and their relations with the settlements are about innocence and ignorance – you don’t exactly know, think about or pay attention to where the research projects and their many partners have an impact. Still, this does not make research projects operating in the settlements any less significant.”

Pietikäinen emphasises that “not only the EU, but also research institutions and research coordinators must better monitor and make sure that EU research projects do not flow into the occupied territories”.

Yaira Hamama-Raz and the director of Ariel Center for Applied Cancer Research Michael Firer were approached for comment. Hamama-Raz did not reply. Firer said he will consult the PR staff of Ariel University and did not reply after that.

Syksy Räsänen

The author is one of the signatories of the Times Higher Education letter.

This article has originally been published in Finnish in the magazine Voima.