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US Questions Closing of Two Palestinian Colleges by Israel - 2003-01-15

The United States took issue Wednesday with Israel's decision to close down two Palestinian colleges as part of its response to Palestinian suicide bombings in Tel Aviv earlier this month.

The Bush administration has been reluctant to criticize security actions by Israel that have followed terrorist attacks against its civilians.

But it is openly questioning how the closure of the two Palestinian schools can contribute to either Israeli security or the more normal life for Palestinians that the United States has also advocated.

The comments came in response to the announcement that the Israeli military was shutting down the Islamic University and the Polytechnic Institute both located in the West Bank city of Hebron, as part of its response to the twin Palestinian suicide bombings that killed more than 20 people in Tel Aviv January 5.

Briefing reporters, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States recognizes Israel's right to take steps that contribute to the peace and security if its people. But he said it should also consider the consequences of such actions.

"We do believe the Palestinians have a right to live their lives in as normal conditions as possible. And I think we'd have to question how the closure of the universities contributes to any of those goals," Mr. Boucher said.

The Israeli army said the schools were being used by terrorist organizations to plan and launch attacks. The Palestinian education minister accused Israel of trying to sabotage an education system in the West Bank already hard-hit by security closures and curfews.

The State Department in recent days has also criticized Israel's use of house-demolitions as an anti-terrorist tactic, saying the practice exacerbates the humanitarian problems in the Palestinian areas and undermines the mutual trust and confidence needed for Middle East peace-making.

In a related development, spokesman Boucher welcomed as "positive and constructive" the British-organized conference that ended in London Tuesday aimed at promoting Palestinian political reforms. Palestinian officials took part in the meeting by video hookups having been barred from traveling to London by Israeli authorities in the wake of the January fifth bombings.

The United States was represented at the meeting by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs William Burns.