The Chronicle of Higher Education
From the issue dated November 23, 2007
An Arrest on the Border
The geographer Ghazi Falah was caught between Israel and the Arab world
By JOHN GRAVOIS
Ghazi-Walid Falah was not worried when Israeli security agents stopped his car on a narrow mountain road near the Lebanese border, just before sundown on July 8, 2006.
When they discover who I am, he assured himself, they will immediately release me.
Mr. Falah is a prominent political geographer who studies borders. He is a tenured professor at the University of Akron. And he is a dual citizen of Israel and Canada. He thought he had nothing to fear.
But his self-assurance — and his freedom — were short-lived.
That night agents of the Israel Security Agency, also known as the Shin Bet, or Shabak, arrested Mr. Falah and took him to a police station in Nahariya. There they told him they had found something in his camera: a photograph of a "sensitive" military antenna near the coast.
Then they used the word meragel: Spy.
In the middle of the night, a three-car convoy carried Mr. Falah, bound hand and foot, to his brother's home, near Nazareth, so the Shin Bet could search his luggage there. In that blur of a visit, Mr. Falah spoke just a few words to his brother. "Contact my lawyer," he said. "I'm clean."
That was the last Mr. Falah's family, friends, or colleagues would hear from him for the next 18 days. A gag order from an Israeli court forbade Mr. Falah to speak with his lawyer, his lawyer to speak with the press, and the Israeli press to cover his arrest.
Four days into Mr. Falah's detention, war broke out between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, further burying his disappearance in the public consciousness. When he was released, on July 30, with the war still raging, he had been imprisoned and interrogated for 23 days. No charges were ever filed against him.
In the history of the region's conflicts, the story of one detained geography professor is a minor episode at best.
But at a time when scholars of the Middle East agonize over visa denials and public tenure battles, Mr. Falah's experience gives even starker definition to the risks involved in studying the region.
Looking back, Mr. Falah believes that his scholarly record — far from protecting him — only fueled the suspicions that surrounded him on that mountain road. Once the interrogation began, he says, his entire career was turned against him: his scholarship on the contested landscape of Israel; his network of colleagues in the Arab world; and his longstanding rivalries with powerful figures in Israeli academe.
Israel's Ministry of Justice says it followed due process in arresting Mr. Falah and investigating its suspicions of him. Israeli officials say he was released when that investigation did not turn up evidence for an indictment.
But Mr. Falah has a much darker interpretation of what happened: "They knew exactly who I was," he says.
An Israeli Arab
Mr. Falah is a Bedouin. He grew up in Galilee, in a hamlet without electricity or running water. He spent his boyhood writing out school assignments by oil lamp.
Those origins defined his early scholarly career. After taking two degrees at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Mr. Falah, 54, pursued a Ph.D. in geography at the University of Durham, in England. There he wrote his dissertation on the process by which the Bedouin people of Galilee had surrendered their nomadic lifestyle over the previous 100 years.
While at Durham, he befriended another doctoral student with ties to Israel — David Newman, the son of a British rabbi, who planned an academic career in Israel. They shared the same adviser, Gerald H. Blake, and a similar outlook on Israeli geography.
Many Israeli geographers in the preceding generation had been trained in Israel or participated in the building of the state. But Mr. Falah and Mr. Newman were part of a new wave, trained outside of Israel, whose views were more critical of national policies.
When Mr. Falah returned home, in 1982, he was the first Israeli Arab to hold a Ph.D. in geography. He assumed that he would enjoy a long career in Israel's universities. But he soon found that the world he was entering was both small and stubborn.
He secured a position at Tel Aviv University, following his Durham colleague Mr. Newman there, but quickly gathered enemies. By many
accounts, Mr. Falah's headstrong nature was part of the problem. But colleagues also point to his precarious position between cultures in conflict.
"He was too Palestinian for some geographers of the older generation — men who are in their 80s now," says Izhak Schnell, a professor of social geography at Tel Aviv. When Mr. Falah later lectured at universities in the West Bank, he had a different problem. "There," says Mr. Schnell, "he wasn't Palestinian enough."
On the Road
At the time of his arrest last year, Mr. Falah was visiting Israel from Ohio because of a family emergency. His mother was in a hospital in Haifa, about to have an operation to remove a nonmalignant tumor from her brain. He had flown in a few days before the surgery to be by her side.
The surgery was scheduled for Sunday. On Saturday afternoon, Mr. Falah took a breather from the hospital and drove a rental car north along the Israeli coast to Rosh Haniqra, a formation of limestone cliffs about 30 miles from Haifa.
Guidebooks describe the spot — just on the border with Lebanon — as one of the most beautiful in Israel, so Mr. Falah borrowed his nephew's camera for the trip. He remembers snapping pictures of the sea, and of an etched sign that points, in opposite directions, to Jerusalem and Beirut. He also remembers seeing the large antenna that rises several hundred feet out of the naval base across the street from the tourist sites. Mr. Falah thinks he caught the antenna in two or three photographs. It's hard to miss, he says — you can see it for miles.
Mr. Falah then drove east, into the mountains that rim the border with Lebanon, to dine with an old friend in the Bedouin village of Arab Al-Aramshah, which has appeared in his research.
Along the way, he pulled off at a lookout spot on the road. There he was approached by a plainclothes man who flashed the credentials of a security officer. Mr. Falah recalls their exchange as friendly: The man asked what he was doing, and Mr. Falah gave a rambling answer about his academic interests, his ailing mother, and his brief visit to Israel. Then they parted ways.
At around 6 p.m., Mr. Falah left Arab Al-Aramshah. A second agent flagged down his car. That was how it started.
A Powerful Enemy
After the midnight trip to his brother's house, Mr. Falah says he was brought to the Kishon prison, southeast of Haifa. There, at 3 a.m., his interrogation began.
"You are spying because you want to take revenge on us," the first interrogator said. "Because you did not get a professorship at an Israeli university."
The interrogator then uttered a familiar name. "I know that Professor Arnon Soffer is your enemy in Israeli academe," he said.
Arnon Soffer, a professor emeritus of political geography and geostrategy at the University of Haifa and director of research at the National Defense College, is a prominent enemy to have in Israeli politics or academe.
A self-styled Jeremiah of the demographic threat posed by Palestinian birth rates, Mr. Soffer has advised a string of Israeli prime ministers, including Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, and Ariel Sharon. He is also widely considered the "intellectual father" of Sharon's decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and build a security fence along its
boundary, in an effort to shore up both Israel's border and its Jewish majority.
On a recent evening, in a telephone interview, Mr. Soffer offered his views of Israel's political geography with characteristically voluble and brutal candor.
"Gaza is a prison. The people are like animals — they have no place to move," he says. "Gaza will be two and a half million people in 12 years. Egypt will not absorb them. All the pressure is going to be toward Israel. And if Israel would like to survive as a Jewish democratic state, we will have to stop them climbing over the fences, and we will have to kill them."
"Yes," he adds, "demography is very deterministic."
Recalling Mr. Falah's debut as a young Israeli geographer, Mr. Soffer begins with a single compliment: "Ghazi Falah was the first guy to at least put on the table that we, the Israelis, we changed the landscape … from an Arabic Palestine to a Jewish Palestine."
The compliment is remarkable, because, by many accounts, no geographer more than Mr. Soffer opposed Mr. Falah in his attempts to advance that idea.
The battle began shortly after Mr. Falah arrived as a lecturer at Tel Aviv in 1982. Around that time, his first paper, a critique of Israel's effort to concentrate its scattered Bedouin population into planned settlements, was published in the journal Geoforum.
While most Israeli geographers interpreted the government's plan as a benign attempt to provide the Bedouins with modern services, Mr. Falah was dubious. "Planned settlement in Israel," he wrote, "was influenced primarily by the state's need to acquire private Bedouin land for Jewish settlement and to secure Bedouin manpower for the Israeli labour market."
Vociferous rebuttals to Mr. Falah's scholarly methods and conclusions poured in to Geoforum, with Mr. Soffer leading the charge.
It was a pattern that repeated itself with much of Mr. Falah's
scholarship, says Oren Yiftachel, a professor of geography at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, whose views are often sympathetic with Mr. Falah's.
"They unpacked his writing, and sometimes they found mistakes," Mr. Yiftachel says. "He makes them, like everyone. They didn't get beyond this."
Mr. Falah's appointment at Tel Aviv University lasted only a year. He never found another one on an Israeli campus. So, in 1987, with help from the Ford Foundation, he founded the Galilee Center for Social Research, in Nazareth. There he began publishing scholarship on what he called Israel's "Judaization" policy in the Galilee region — the state's attempt, in his view, to tightly constrict Arab citizens' control of land there.
Mr. Soffer followed close behind. He tried to dissuade the Ford Foundation from giving Mr. Falah money. Then, in 1989, Mr. Soffer and a colleague at Haifa circulated a letter among other Israeli geographers, encouraging them to be vigilant in replying to Mr. Falah's scholarship.
Mr. Falah had the letter translated into English and sent it to
geographers around the world, calling it an "academic conspiracy" against him. Soon afterward his library privileges at Haifa were revoked — access that he needed for his research.
More and more, Mr. Falah's Israeli critics began to label his scholarship in political terms: "anti-Israel," "anti-Zionist," "Palestinian
nationalist." Mr. Falah replied in kind, writing in a 1994 paper that "most Israeli geographers are preoccupied with defending Israel and its policies."
His former Durham colleague Mr. Newman says Mr. Falah's scholarship was incendiary only by the standards of the era: "He was before his time. The criticism of Israeli universities today is far to the left of Ghazi Falah."
But Mr. Falah did not stick around to see that day. In 1991 he left Israel for a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Northern Iowa. Two years later, following a move to Toronto, he became a Canadian citizen. He has not lived in Israel since then.
"I wasted 10 years debating with Arnon Soffer," he says. "It's endless."
The interrogation room where agents conjured Mr. Soffer and other ghosts from Mr. Falah's career was a nondescript square, about 15 by 15 feet, with a computer against one wall.
Mr. Falah says he sat in a wooden, armless chair in the middle of the room. The chair was fastened to the ground, his hands chained to its back.
Five interrogators took turns with him. At one point, they questioned him for 60 hours straight.
After 40 hours without sleep, Mr. Falah began to fray. He declared a hunger strike, then changed his mind. He tried to make deals with the interrogators: If they gave him three hours of sleep, he would answer one question.
They kept asking the same questions over and over again.
When the interrogators asked him about his feud with Mr. Soffer and other Israeli geographers, they seemed to be searching for a motive for his presumed betrayal of Israel.
But when they asked about the career he had made after leaving Israel, Mr. Falah felt that they were searching for a crime.
Mr. Falah's academic career only picked up speed once he left Israel and headed for America. Over the years, his estrangement from the Israeli geographic establishment gradually extended even to his few remaining friends there.
Mr. Falah's last real engagements with Israeli academe came in the mid-1990s, around the time of the Oslo accords, when he and David Newman won a $95,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to explore the possible territorial implications of a "two-state
They produced four papers over three years, but only with difficulty. "People to this day remember the loud voices coming out of the room," says Mr. Newman. In an editorial for The Jerusalem Post, Mr. Newman described the collaboration as crippled by the growing cultural chasm between the two men. "We have spent much of the past three years quibbling over semantics and terminology," he wrote, "as though the existence of the world depended on using a particular term."
Mr. Newman subsequently used the articles produced by his work with Mr. Falah to bolster his successful case for tenure at Ben Gurion. When another political-geographer position at the university opened up around the same time, Mr. Falah applied for it.
Mr. Yiftachel, who was then chairman of the department, says he supported Mr. Falah's candidacy but sensed that some other members of the department saw him as a "troublemaker." Mr. Falah did not get the position.
In 1998, Mr. Falah founded The Arab World Geographer. The journal
established him as a hub in an international network of social scientists, a world larger and more welcoming than the tiny family of Israeli
geographers he had left behind. He traveled throughout the Arab world, meeting with scholars and setting up conferences.
In 2001, at the second Arab World Geographer conference, Mr. Falah rejected a paper submitted by Mr. Newman, calling it irrelevant to the gathering's theme of Euro-Arab relations. The two men did not speak for years.
In the prison interrogation, Mr. Falah recalls, his questioners often returned to his scholarship.
"Do you know that the Islamic movement in Israel often praises your work?" one demanded.
"Do you know that Sheikh Ra'id Salah cites your books in his speeches?" asked another, referring to a pro-militant Islamist leader.
But Mr. Falah's interrogators often seemed less interested in him than in other scholars he had met across the Arab world through his journal.
The questioners knew that he had traveled to Beirut recently to set up logistics for a conference. He had stayed with a man named Samir who worked at the Institute for Palestine Studies. The interrogators wanted to know how many bathrooms Samir had in his apartment.
They asked similar questions about other scholars Mr. Falah had met in Syria and Iran. How did this one dress in public? How old was that one?
During the interrogation, Mr. Falah had often glimpsed his own secret file, a heap of papers that contained an unknown number of intimate details about him. Now he had the feeling that the interrogators were using him to supply intimate details for the files of other men.
A Web of Concern
As Mr. Falah was being held and interrogated, the first geographer to hear about his disappearance was his former friend and collaborator, David Newman.
He quickly sounded the alarm among geographers. The message wended its way to Colin Flint, a geography professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who had become Mr. Falah's main collaborator in recent years.
From a vacation cabin in rural Montana, Mr. Flint started an e-mail campaign, mobilizing supporters to bombard the Israeli Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the prime minister's office with messages.
Izhak Schnell, who had recently stepped down as president of the Israeli Association of Geographers, was in Berlin on sabbatical when he heard about Mr. Falah's arrest. He took up the case on behalf of the
association, a group that Mr. Falah had always pointedly declined to join. "Despite the fact that he's not a member," says Mr. Schnell, "we had to intervene."
Through another Israeli geographer with personal ties to the government, Mr. Schnell contacted the foreign minister, Tzipi Livni. He told her that Mr. Falah was a well-known geographer and should not be considered a threat.
A while later, the ministry called Mr. Schnell back, saying Ms. Livni had spoken with the Shin Bet. The security agency had told her that Mr. Falah was carrying damning evidence — not only the images of the antenna, but also a cellphone that contained numbers known to be connected to
Mr. Falah takes particular exception to that accusation; he says he has never carried a cellphone.
Finally, in response to a lawsuit filed by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the gag order was lifted on July 25. An article appeared in the newspaper, more than two weeks after similar headlines had run abroad:
"Canadian-Israeli Prof. Arrested on Suspicion of Spying for Hezbollah."
That same day, for the first time since his arrest, Mr. Falah was
represented by his lawyer, who promptly filed an appeal with a central court. A judge gave the security agency a deadline: File charges against Mr. Falah by 11:30 a.m. on July 30, or let him go.
The Shin Bet showed little interest in Mr. Falah after that. He was interrogated only once more, he says, for just a few minutes. He was put in a cell above ground for the first time. He slept. He waited.
A little after 11 o'clock in the morning on the deadline day — no earlier than necessary, Mr. Falah recalls bitterly — he was let go.
Outside the prison, under the glare of TV cameras, he spoke briefly with his wife, in Ohio, then got into his brother's car. They drove to Haifa, where their mother was recovering in the hospital, unaware that anything had happened.
An Ordeal Examined
Last September the Israeli Ministry of Justice sent a letter to many of the scholars who had taken part in Mr. Flint's e-mail campaign.
"Professor Falah was arrested after taking photographs of a military facility, under suspicious circumstances," the letter said. "Further suspicions against him were raised during his investigation.
"The investigation was conducted according to law, and was subject to judicial review. Due to lack of evidence to indict him on any charges, Professor Falah was released at the end of his investigation, and the case was closed."
Closure, however, has not come so easily for Mr. Falah. He has demanded an official apology from the Israeli government — his government — for his detainment.
On a recent afternoon in Akron, Mr. Falah pulls out a large, beat-up cardboard box full of his journal articles. It is September, a little over a year since his release. He still does not sleep well.
"What I said 20 years ago about the Bedouin — today many Israelis say that," he says, leafing through the articles. "I could point out many Israelis who are even far more radical in their writing than me."
Mr. Newman, who still seldom speaks with Mr. Falah, gives some credence to the other man's grievances. "He's extremely bitter," Mr. Newman says. "He can sometimes, I think, overplay his claims. But it's much more difficult to be critical now, after what happened to him."
Mr. Falah muses darkly that Arnon Soffer, with all his influence in high places, may have played a role in his detention.
Mr. Soffer, hardly bashful about his connections, emphatically denies that suggestion. "I was a teacher for the head of the security service!" he says. "And believe me, I didn't mention the name Ghazi Falah to him."
Most of all, Mr. Falah is haunted by the sense that his imprisonment was meant to send a message.
"I feel it was like a punishment," he says, meant to scare him and other Palestinian scholars into self-censorship.
This is a mental leap that many of Mr. Falah's colleagues do not make. But many of them cannot shake their suspicion that his detainment was more than an innocent error.
"If I was detained for two or three or four days, you would say, 'Wrong place, wrong time,' and we would wrap up the story," Mr. Falah says. "I was detained for 23 days. And I was released by a court order.
"They did not do me a favor," he says. "It was not a mistake."
Section: The Faculty
Volume 54, Issue 13, Page A1