By Omar Radwan
Last week, the Israeli Ministry of Interior issued Palestinian geographer Khalil al-Tafakji with a six-month travel ban. Tafakji’s activities are largely confined to surveying and cartography, he is not a politician. However, his work has created major obstacles for Israel’s plans to Judaize the city of Jerusalem and decrease its Palestinian population.
Tafakji is employed by the Mapping and Geographic Information Systems Department (GIS) of the Arab Studies Society. The aim of this department, as described by Tafakji, is “to research and document the effects of Israeli policies and practices in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) relating to land and property, and to be able to produce maps showing these effects”. Among the maps produced is one showing Palestine as it was in 1945 and one plotting every illegal Israeli settlement built in the West Bank and the Jerusalem area from 1967 to 1994. In 1998, GIS completed a project surveying all Palestinian property in Jerusalem and the department now serves as the main reference point for people engaged in land transactions. The work of GIS has stalled Israeli plans for Jerusalem in various ways. It now holds accurate details of property entitlements in the city, so GIS has been able to stop sales of property to Israeli parties by people with forged title deeds. In addition, it has been able to submit zoning proposals to the Jerusalem municipality designed to prevent Israeli takeovers of Arab areas of the city. These are usually signed by all the residents of a certain area and are, therefore, difficult even for the Israelis to refuse.
Three weeks ago, Tafakji returned to Jerusalem from a tour which took him to a number of countries, including India, Tunisia, and Turkey. He had been speaking about the effects of Israeli policies in Jerusalem on the city’s Palestinian population. No such travel ban as has been imposed on Tafakji has ever been imposed on any other Palestinian; the only similar case is that of Israeli nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu, who has been prevented from leaving the country ever since his release from prison. It seems that Israel is very fearful that facts about its policies in Jerusalem – which can be best described as ethnic cleansing by stealth – reach a wide audience outside the country.
Khalil al-Tafakji is not the only person working to preserve the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem who has been targeted by Israel. On 13 January an Israeli court sentenced Sheikh Raed Salah to nine months imprisonment for affray. Sheikh Salah was alleged to have spat in the face of an Israeli policeman during a 2007 demonstration against Israel’s demolition of the Magharbeh Gate of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the building of a new bridge in its place that would allow Israeli soldiers easy access to Al-Aqsa Mosque in order to quell demonstrations. Sheikh Salah denies the charges against him vehemently, saying that his Muslim faith prevents him from spitting at any creature created by God, let alone a human being. He claims that it was he who was attacked, something far more likely given the brutality to which the Palestinians of the city are subjected regularly by the Israeli police.
The real reason why the Israeli authorities want Sheikh Salah behind bars is because of his exposure of Israel’s plans for Jerusalem. He is the leader of the Islamic Movement within Israel’s 1948 boundaries and is at the forefront of a campaign to stop Israeli plans to Judaize the Palestinian neighbourhoods of Jerusalem and their assault on Al-Aqsa Mosque and other Muslim holy places in the city -described euphemistically by Israel as “archaeological excavation”. In October, Sheikh Salah organised a sit-in at Al-Aqsa Mosque, in which hundreds of Palestinians took part. This was in response to the plans of two extremist Jewish groups, Revava and the Temple Mount Faithful, to enter the mosque and desecrate it. Israeli police stormed the site shortly afterwards and the Sheikh was banned from entering Jerusalem. Sheikh Salah said recently that 2010 will be a decisive year for Al-Aqsa Mosque. He revealed that Israel has already built three networks of tunnels under Jerusalem; one under Al-Aqsa Mosque, one under the Old City and one under the Selwan district, where Israel has started to demolish hundreds of Palestinian homes in order to construct an “archaeological park”. Israel’s “excavation” work has resulted in the collapse of Palestinian houses and threatens Al-Aqsa Mosque itself. The Sheikh also spoke of Israel’s construction of a synagogue near Al-Aqsa Mosque and said that the Zionist state’s ultimate plan is to enforce a partition of Al-Aqsa Mosque between Muslims and Jews similar to that imposed at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron after 1967.
Israel’s imprisonment of Sheikh Raed Salah and its unprecedented travel ban on Khalil al-Tafakji are part of a systematic assault on the Palestinians of the city which has escalated over the past year. This assault includes the destruction of Palestinian homes in the Selwan district, the eviction of Palestinians in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood and their replacement by Israeli settlers, the planned desecration and destruction of a Muslim graveyard in order to build a “Museum of Tolerance” on the site, and Israeli activities at Al-Aqsa Mosque. Israel is now trying to silence two Palestinians who stand in the way of its plans and who have mobilised others to prevent the destruction of their city. However, the Palestinians of Jerusalem will not disappear quietly, and thanks to the efforts of people like Sheikh Raed Salah and Khalil al-Tafakji they are aware that they can disrupt Israel’s plans and stop them from going ahead.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.