Stephen Hawking
Stephen Hawking (Reuters)

World-renowned physicist professor Stephen Hawking has withdrawn from a conference hosted by Israeli president Shimon Peres in Jerusalem in protest against the country's treatment of Palestinians, according to the Guardian.

The theoretical physicist and Lucasian professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge has not announced his decision in public. However, in a massive boost for anti-Israel campaigners, the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine said in a statement that Hawking, 71, "has declined his invitation to attend the Israeli Presidential Conference Facing Tomorrow 2013, due to take place in Jerusalem on 18-20 June".

"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.

The fifth annual presidential conference will mark Peres' 90th birthday and includes major international figures including former president of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev, former US president Bill Clinton and former UK prime minister Tony Blair.

Hawking's decision is just the latest victory for the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement, which campaigns for the boycott of Israel and companies it accuses of being complicit in the country's violations of international law.

Last month, the world's biggest security company, G4S, reiterated its pledge to end key contracts in Israel after pressure by pro-Palestinian groups in a move that some economists have suggested could signal it pulling out of the country altogether.

Nineteen human rights organisations in Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine issued a statement calling for the exclusion of G4S from contracts inside the European Union. Film directors Ken Loach and Mike Leigh wrote a letter to the BBC calling on it to "recognise there is a public interest in excluding G4S from the tendering process".

In April, the Teachers' Union of Ireland became the first lecturers' association in Europe to call for an academic boycott of Israel.

The Guardian reports that Hawking had come under pressure from boycott supporters and pro-Palestinians groups trying to persuade him not to attend the conference. He reportedly changed his mind following the advice of Palestinian colleagues.

Hawking's move attracted criticism from the pro-Israeli website The Commentator. In a letter to the professor, Raheem Kassam, the executive director, expressed his "deepest dismay" to read that Hawing was "the latest casualty of group-think and misinformation" on the Israel boycott.

"[Sadly, however] I now believe that you are the latest in a line of celebrities, academics and politicians who are being misled by the closed-minded, closed-shop style of debate that I know you to have rejected over the majority of your life," said Kassam. "I think it would be an incredible shame for you to use your stature for something so negative, fruitless and inherently discriminatory."

A representative of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel told IBTimes UK:

"Stephen Hawking is the most prominent academic to date to heed the call by Palestinian civil society to boycott Israeli academic institutions due to their grave complicity in planning, implementing, justifying and whitewashing Israel's occupation, colonization and apartheid. Palestinians deeply appreciate Prof. Hawking's support and hope it will open the door to many academics around the world to follow suit, as was done against apartheid universities in South Africa."