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Stephen Hawking at a 2006 press conference. Creative Commons

Renowned British physicist Stephen Hawking has recently pulled out of this year's Israeli Presidential Conference: Facing tomorrow 2013, which will be hosted by President Shimon Peres in June. According to the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BCUP), which supports the academic boycott of Israel and opposes its occupation of Palestinian territories, Hawking had "declined his invitation" and decided to observe the boycott.

Initially, Cambridge University, where Hawking has worked since 1962, confirmed that he pulled out but for health reasons. Hawking suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

"Professor Hawking will not be attending the conference in Israel in June for health reasons -- his doctors have advised against him flying," a university spokesman told AFP.

However, BCUP later confirmed that Hawking's reason for pulling out was indeed in support of a boycott.

Hawking's endorsement of the boycott prompted angry responses from organizers, with conference chairman Israel Maimon calling the decision "unjustifiable and wrong."

"The academic boycott against Israel is in our view outrageous and improper, certainly for someone for whom the spirit of liberty lies at the basis of his human and academic mission," Maimon said, calling the imposition of a boycott incompatible with open, democratic dialogue.

The boycott campaign is led by Palestinians, Israeli leftists and other supporters who oppose Israel's policies toward the Palestinians and are attuned to the power of celebrity in this age.

BCUP has defended hawking's decision and hailed him for his support.

"This is his independent decision to respect the boycott, based upon his knowledge of Palestine, and on the unanimous advice of his own academic contacts there," the committee said on its website.

Hawking has visited Israel four times in the past, his most recent trip delivering a series of public lectures at Israeli and Palestinian universities as a guest of the British embassy in Tel Aviv in 2006. At the time, he said he was "looking forward to coming out to Israel and the Palestinian territories and excited about meeting both Israeli and Palestinian scientists".

His attitudes on Israel have hardened since that time; he even denounced Israel's three-week attack on Gaza in 2009, telling Riz Khan on Al-Jazeera that Israel's response to rocket fire from Gaza was "plain out of proportion ... The situation is like that of South Africa before 1990 and cannot continue."

The conference, which begins on June 18th, will include attendance by former world leaders including Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Tony Blair, as well as singer Barbara Streisand and other diplomats, politicians, and academics. By participating in the boycott, Hawking joins a small but growing list of British personalities who have turned down invitations to visit Israel, including Elvis Costello, Roger Waters, Brian Eno, Annie Lennox and Mike Leigh.

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