Al-Quds University is on the Jerusalem side of the barrier that divides the city from the West Bank. Credit: D. SILVERMAN/GETTY NEWS

For many who follow the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, Al-Quds University in Jerusalem is a beacon of hope. Of all the Palestinian universities, it is the only one that vigorously promotes interaction with Israeli institutions.

But dissent among its academics over such collaborations is becoming increasingly public. A survey of Al-Quds staff, released last month, suggests that most want to avoid joint projects while Israel continues to occupy the West Bank and Gaza.

Although the survey's methodology has come in for criticism, its findings are mirrored in recent Palestinian statements calling for a boycott of Israeli universities — calls that look set to reignite the boycott debate elsewhere.

Al-Quds' policy owes much to its location in a suburb of Jerusalem, where travel to Israeli institutions is not hindered by the Israeli army checkpoints that dot the West Bank and Gaza. Senior staff have backed collaboration for more than a decade, bringing in millions of dollars of funding. At least 70 such projects are ongoing, says Hasan Dweik, the university's acting president.

But according to the recent survey, conducted by the university's employees' union, three-quarters of the university staff oppose collaborative projects. Al-Quds academics, who spoke to Nature on condition of anonymity, say they fear that by working with Israelis they are acquiescing to the occupation. “The projects are harmful because they give the impression that the best minds are working together and things are fine,” says one faculty member.

Dweik is sympathetic to such fears, but argues that working with Israelis — who are better funded and often more experienced than their Palestinian colleagues — helps Al-Quds prepare for its role in a future Palestinian state. And, he says, it means that Israeli academics learn about Palestinian views. The survey results, he adds, are contradicted by researchers' actual behaviour: “More than 150 of our 300 academics are involved in joint projects, so how did the union get its result?”

Al-Quds staff who back the survey's findings acknowledged that the questions could have been more rigorously worded. But they point to public opposition among colleagues in the West Bank and Gaza as evidence that the result is representative.

Last July, for example, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel was launched. Spearheaded by Lisa Taraki, a sociologist at Birzeit University in the West Bank, the call has been backed by a coalition of academic trade unions from Palestinian universities.

This backing adds momentum to similar campaigns elsewhere, say British academics behind a proposal to boycott Israeli researchers. The UK campaign was launched in 2002 (see Nature 425, 444–449; 2003), and later this month Britain's Association of University Teachers will debate a motion to focus the boycott on specific universities, such as those linked with educational institutions in Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories.

But despite moves from Palestinian academic organizations, those in favour of a boycott will struggle to win over other academics who have already opposed the idea, such as Michael Aizenman, a mathematical physicist at Princeton University in New Jersey. “As a tool for fostering progress in the Middle East, calls for intellectual boycott are highly counterproductive,” he says.