JERUSALEM -- A Canadian-Israeli geography professor who taught at the University of Toronto is being held without charge in an Israeli prison on suspicion of spying for Hezbollah and Iran.
Ghazi Falah, 53, has been in prison since July 8, when security officials arrested him for taking photos while touring near the Lebanese border in northern Israel, four days before the present conflict broke out. Israeli security officials say Dr. Falah is suspected of "spying for hostile sources, with the goal of harming state security." But after 18 days in detention and four closed court appearances, he has not yet been charged with a crime and was first allowed to speak to his lawyer only yesterday.
A publication ban on the case was lifted yesterday after the Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz appealed it in court.
Israeli officials say Dr. Falah was photographing a military antenna in the northern town of Rosh Hanikra and argued when they asked him to stop. They have also cited a recent trip to Lebanon, where he took photos in the south of the country, and a trip two years ago to Iran, local media reported. But Dr. Falah has maintained the photos were for his own research into Middle Eastern geography.
"I am a geographer and an academic researcher, and I have never made any connections secret or illegal with intelligence or terror sources," Dr. Falah said in a statement given by his lawyer, Hussein abu-Hussein.
His family, who said they haven't spoken to him since his arrest, said Dr. Falah flew to Israel to care for his mother, who was having surgery for a brain tumour. They've since learned from his lawyer and extended family in Nazareth that the professor was taking a break in the seaside town of Nahariya, a few kilometres from the Lebanese border.
His family also said his trips to Lebanon, Iran and other places within the Muslim world have been for academic purposes, often in the company of colleagues from his university and others.
"To tell you the truth, the first thing is it's preposterous," his son, Naail Falah, 23, said in a telephone interview from the family home in Ohio. "He is a leader in his field and he would never, ever do anything to jeopardize who he is and who he's built himself up to be."
He said the family fear his detainment may be in part due to research papers that, in some quarters, have been criticized as anti-Israeli. Four years ago, at an Association of American Geographers conference, the professor gave a presentation entitled Blaming the Victim, arguing that the media were biased against the Palestinian cause during the second intifada. The presentation was criticized as biased by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human-rights group.
Dr. Falah is married with three surviving sons; a fourth, Walid, died in a car accident in Toronto four years ago. Naail said his father flew out of Toronto on July 4 and was due to return there on July 16, one day before the fourth anniversary of the crash, where the rest of the family was to meet him.
The professor, who has dual Canadian and Israeli citizenship, is on a permanent work permit in the United States. He was hired as an assistant professor by the University of Akron in August, 2001; he was recently promoted to full professor.
"The university has been in touch with United States diplomats and also with diplomatic representatives of the Canadian government to provide helpful information and do what we can," University of Akron spokesman Paul Herald said. "The university has been doing its best to work through diplomatic channels to try to resolve this. . . . At the same time, we're very aware it's a sensitive situation."
The acting chair of the University of Toronto's geography department, Robert Lewis, has joined professors at U of T and across North America in writing letters to Canadian and Israeli officials to ask that he be allowed due process, and be either charged or released.