TORONTO - A former University of Toronto geography professor has been arrested in Israel and is suspected of espionage after he was caught photographing "sensitive installations" near the Lebanese border.
But family, friends and colleagues of Ghazi Falah say there has been a terrible misunderstanding about an academic who has spent his career promoting understanding between Western and Middle Eastern scholars.
They point out that while in Toronto he started an academic journal, The Arab World Geographer, for which he often photographed geographic features in the Middle East.
"It's a mistake, in my opinion," said Richard Stren, who was director of the university's Centre for Urban and Community Studies when Mr. Falah worked there as a research fellow from 1996 to 2006.
"My mother lives in Nahariya [northern Israel], so I'm very sensitive to the issue of conflict between Hezbollah and everyone else," Prof. Stren said. "But at the same time I know him as a decent person who is not into politics."
Mr. Falah is an Israeli Arab who also has Canadian citizenship. He has been detained since his arrest on July 8 by the Shin Bet security service near Nahariya, four days before the outbreak of hostilities with Hezbollah.
His family said he was not allowed to see a lawyer until he appeared in court yesterday, where a gag order was lifted.
Ofir Gendelman, a spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Ottawa, said no charges have been laid and Mr. Falah is being held for questioning.
According to the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, security officials accuse Mr. Falah, now a tenured professor at the University of Akron, in Ohio, of "spying for hostile sources, with the intention of harming state security." This includes photographing a military antenna and possible targets for Hezbollah rockets.
Through his lawyer, Mr. Falah refuted the substance of the allegations to the newspaper. His wife denies her husband has any ties to terrorism or international espionage.
"He is an academic," said Jamila Falah, 45, from their home near Akron. "He's a writer. He's a professor. He has nothing to do with politics."
The main reason for his trip was to visit his mother, who has a brain tumour and lives near Nazareth.
Mrs. Falah said her husband's area of expertise is the geographic relationship between Arabs and Israelis -- in particular, borders.
She has appealed to the Canadian embassy in Israel and consular officials in Ottawa to help free her husband.
Rodney Moore, a spokesman for the Foreign Affairs department, said yesterday Canada is aware of Mr. Falah's detention and has offered consular services, but he could not comment further for privacy reasons.
The Falahs lived in Etobicoke for eight years and would have happily stayed if not for the offer of a better job.
"It's my home -- that's really my home," Mrs. Falah said.
Friends and colleagues at U of T said Mr. Falah returned frequently to visit and because of outstanding legal issues after one of his four sons was killed in an impaired driving accident in 2002.
"It's been very difficult for them," said Grace Ramirez, who became friends with the Fallahs. "I am concerned about his wife -- it's another blow to her. She lost a son, now the problems with Ghazi."
She added she was shocked to learn of Mr. Falah's detention, recalling him as "warm," "thoughtful" and "kind."