Citing “security reasons” – the ubiquitous and unanswerable catch-all phrase against which it is almost impossible to mount any defense — Israel’s Ministry of the Interior has just issued a six-month travel ban on map expert Khalil Toufakji.
(His name is also spelled, in an alternative transliteration from Arabic into English, as Tafakji).
Toufakji, like almost all other East Jerusalem Palestinians, is a “Permanent Resident” of the State of Israel, but is not a citizen.
“You know I am not a political man”, Toufakji said today. But, this is a place where even ordinary everyday life becomes political.
However, he has been called the Palestinian Authority’s chief geographer.
He is frequently interviewed as an expert on Al-Jazeera television, as well as on Palestinian television and other media. He said in a phone interview today that he just returned 20 days ago from his most recent tour, to lecture at the Lebanese Arab University in Beirut. Earlier in January, he lectured at the Philadelphia University in Jordan, and went to Libya to lecture in response to a Libyan invitation issued to the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Agriculture, and he also visited Morocco, Syria and Lebanon, and Turkey. He spoke , he said, about the problems facing Palestinians because of Israeli policies in in East Jerusalem.
Toufakji said he was invited by Dennis Ross to come to Washington a year or so ago (but had to apologize due to a family emergency), to discuss The Wall at a conference together with Israeli former military officer Maj.-Gen. (Ret.) Giora Eiland, who is now an analyst at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). Toufakji added that he was invited by the American Consulate in Jerusalem, on behalf of the U.S. State Department, to tour the USA for a month in 1998, and visited Washington once in 1992 or 1993, he said, at the start of the Oslo process of negotiations.
Toufakji said he did not know of any other person who has been handed such a travel ban.
[The only one I can think of is Mordechai Vanunu, who was released prison in April 2004 after serving an 18-year sentence for talking to the British media about operations at Israel’s nuclear power plant at Dimona, where he had worked as a technician. Vanunu is also banned from speaking about this to foreigners.]
Toufakji, still surprised at the development, said that “Yesterday they called me and said come to Moskobiyya [n.b. the Russian Compound in West Jerusalem which contains a police station, temporary detention facilities, and a court, very near the Jerusalem Municipal Building] – Room 4. They said ‘This is an order, sign it, you have 14 days to make an objection. It is forbidden for you to travel from today for six months’.”
Will he contest the six-month travel ban within the next 14 days? Toufakji said that he has been in constant consultation with lawyers, who have all said that since the explanation he was given was only the generic — but all-encompassing — “security reasons”, it is almost hopelesss to contest.
Toufakji was not given any other restriction, he said.
“We are trying, through relations with Jordan and Egypt, America, Britain and France, to see if we can do anything” to remove the restriction, Toufakji said.
He told the privately-owned and operated Ma’an News Agency in Bethlehem that “I am a peace man”, and noted that he worked as a cartographic expert with Palestinian delegations to peace talks from the era of the Madrid multilateral talks in the pre-Oslo days until the Taba (1992 to 2001) session just before Israel’s then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak (now Israel’s Defense Minister, and as such the ruler of the West Bank).
He also worked with the late P.L.O. leader in Jerusalem, Faisal Husseini, who had set up the Arab Studies Society in 1983 and established an important center for services in the Orient House in East Jerusalem. Toufakji heads the Arab Studies Society’s Mapping and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Department. The maps that his office uses are provided upon request by the Israeli Defense Forces — but are not the latest versions or the highest resolutions of the satellite imagery available.
The Orient House was shut down by Israeli authorities in 1988, during the first Palestinian intifada, and was then re-opened in 1992. It then became the main official Palestinian address in East Jerusalem, and was expected to be a major institution upon the creation of the Palestinian State that was expected at the end of the period of autonomy specified in the Oslo Accords. Instead, it was instead shut down by Israeli authorities after a suicide bombing in West Jerusalem in the early days of the Second Intifada in 2001. It still stands empty today, just around the corner from the legendary American Colony Hotel (formerly the main meeting point for Palestinian figures with internationals and Israeli counterparts, now the security-fortified headquarters of the Quartet’s Middle East Envoy Tony Blair — and a “Leading Hotel of the World”, with a price structure to match that makes it impossible for many Palestinians to go there anymore for meetings or meals).
When Orient House was shut down, Khalil Toufakji’s office moved to Dahiet al-Bariid, down the hill from the World Bank offices, and the Norwegian Representative Office. It is now on the Jerusalem side of The Wall, about 50 meters from a huge closed metal sliding gate and barbed-wire topped 8-meter high concrete slabs that winds its way up the center of a street, dividing the neighborhood of Dahiet al-Bariid into two parts, as unilaterally determined by a single officer in the Israeli military and modified by an Israeli Supreme Court decision.