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Stephen Hawking and Hamas: How scientist spoke up for Palestinians

Physicist, who died on Wednesday, met Israeli PM Ehud Olmert in 2006, but called for talks between Israel and Hamas after 2008-9 Gaza war
Stephen Hawking (R), with then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, on a visit to Israel in 2006 (AFP)

Tributes were being paid on Wednesday to renowned British physicist Stephen Hawking – not only remembering him for the brilliance of his scientific mind but as an impassioned campaigner who lent his unique voice to causes including Palestinians’ right of resistance and to call for an end to the war in Syria.

Hawking, who died early on Wednesday at the age of 76, achieved international acclaim following the publication in 1988 of A Brief History of Time, his book on theoretical physics’ search for a unifying theory that would resolve general relativity and quantum mechanics.

The book would go on to sell more than 10 million copies and transformed Hawking into one of the world’s most recognisable scientists.

By then, Hawking was wheelchair-bound and only able to speak via his distinctive voice synthesiser, having been diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of 22.

Among those to post tributes to him on social media were campaigners for Palestinian rights, who recalled his support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which calls for an academic boycott of Israel.

In 2013, Hawking withdrew from a conference on the future of Israel in Jerusalem, stating that he had decided to “respect the boycott” based on advice from Palestinian academics.

Hawking was condemned by supporters of Israel, with a spokesperson for the Israeli foreign ministry saying: “Never has a scientist of this stature boycotted Israel."

Israel Maimon, the chairman of the conference, said: “The academic boycott of 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.”

Speaking to Al Jazeera in January 2009 about Israel’s Cast Lead invasion of Gaza in which more than 1,000 Palestinians were killed, Hawking said: “A people under occupation will continue to resist in any way it can. If Israel wants peace it will have to talk to Hamas like Britain did with the IRA [Irish Republican Army].

“Hamas are the democratically elected leaders of the Palestinian people and cannot be ignored.”

Hawking's position on Palestine by then appeared to have hardened since an eight-day visit to Israel in 2006 when he had met then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert.

During that trip, Hawking had also delivered a lecture at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, and visited Birzeit University in the illegally occupied West Bank.

Hawking also used his Facebook page to support scientists in Palestine, last year calling for his followers to donate funds to support the opening of a second Palestinian Advanced Physics School.

In 2014, Hawking also spoke up about the war in Syria as part of a campaign by Save the Children to mark the then-third anniversary of the conflict, by voicing the experiences of children affected by the fighting.

Hawking said: “What’s happening in Syria is an abomination, one that the world is watching helplessly from a distance. We must work together to end this war and to protect the children of Syria.”

Hawking also spoke out against the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Addressing a Stop the War rally in 2004, Hawking said the war had been justified on the basis of the "two lies" that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, and suggestions of a link between Saddam Hussein's government and the 9/11 attacks in the US in 2001.

"It has been a tragedy for all the families. If that is not a war crime, what is?" Hawking said. "I apologise for my pronunciation. My speech synthesiser was not designed for Iraqi names."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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