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NATFHE-The University & College Lecturers' Union today echoed many education unions across the world in condemning an announcement by the Israeli government that it intends to close three universities in the occupied Palestinian territories.

The Israeli announcement followed a suicide bombing which killed 22 people in Tel Aviv recently (Sunday 5 Jan). The Israeli government's response included the prevention of Palestinian representatives from visiting Tony Blair for discussions - an obstruction criticised by UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

There has been some confusion about which universities will close but two have been mentioned as likely: Bir Zeit University near Ramallah, and An Najah University in Nablus. Bir Zeit university president, Hanna Nasser, was reported as saying he had received orders to immediately clear the campus. Bir Zeit is one of twelve Palestinian universities currently operating in the West Bank and Gaza.

Commenting upon the Israeli decision to close the universities, NATFHE general secretary Paul Mackney said:

'NATFHE of course condemns suicide bombings but the Israeli response is perverse: it will simply put more angry and disaffected young people onto the street. As so often, the government of Mr Sharon seems intent on pouring petrol on the flames of inter-community violence and hatred. We call on the Israeli government to allow the universities to remain open and for them to function as normally as possible in these abnormal times. So long as Palestinians are denied any hope of a normal life, or hopes for the future, the situation in the Middle East can only deteriorate.'

The intention to close the universities was condemned by the European Higher Education Committee of the international organisation of education unions, Education International, last weekend. Delegates criticised the principle of 'collective punishment' which it said Israel was seeking to apply to the Palestinian community. Colleagues present from Australian, Canadian and U.S. higher education unions joined in the condemnation.

The director of the academic-freedom unit at Human Rights Watch also criticised the Israeli decision, observing that the government has not provided evidence linking campus groups to the recent suicide attacks. Director, Sam Zia Zarifi said: 'Not only are these actions illegal but the Israeli government seems to be weakening - or destroying - the very institutions that are necessary for the operation of legitimate Palestinian authority and the pursuit of peace.'