The Arab Studies Society’s Mapping and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Department was established in 1983 by Faisal al-Husseini, a leading Palestinian political leader in East Jerusalem from the 1980s until his death in 2001. The purpose of the GIS Department is to document “the effects of Israeli policies and practices” in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt), particularly those relating to land and property in Jerusalem.
Since June 1967, the Israeli settler-colonial project in East Jerusalem has aimed to solidify Jewish demographic, territorial, and political domination through a range of legal, administrative, and military measures. The GIS Department has been an integral part of the broader Palestinian resistance strategy to this project, and has documented Israeli land confiscations, monitored settlement building, and helped preserve Palestinian identity and heritage in the city.
On March 14, 2017, the Israeli Public Security Minister ordered the closing of the GIS office in Dahiyat al-Barid, south of ar-Ram on Jerusalem’s outskirts. Israeli police seized department property and detained the GIS’s director, Khalil Tufakji. Israeli authorities falsely claimed that the office was operating, under sponsorship from the Palestinian Authority (PA), within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, legally controlled by Israel. As such, its existence allegedly violated agreements signed by Israel and the PA in 1994 and threatened Israeli claims to sovereignty over the city. Israeli officials also argued that the GIS “terrorized” citizens by providing the PA with information on Palestinians selling property in Jerusalem to Jewish buyers.
On March 16, the GIS office was re-opened and its property returned, thanks to an error with the closure order. But, it is likely to be targeted again. The Arab Studies Society was previously shut down in 1988 and 2001, when it operated from within the Orient House.
Palestinians have dismissed the most recent charges against the GIS as pretextual. Palestinian officials and civil society activists insist the closure is aimed at controlling Jerusalem’s political fate, by hampering the activities of Palestinian institutions and erasing “any Palestinian presence in the city.” As Tufakji claims, the closure is a ploy to silence the department, which holds critical information on illegal Israeli settlement activity.
Indeed, GIS’s closure is part of an ongoing Israeli campaign to intimidate civil society activists and suppress Palestinian national institutions serving Jerusalem. As I have previously written, following its conquest of East Jerusalem in June 1967, Israel pursued a strategy of “enlightened occupation,” in order to mitigate the impact of its settler-colonial project. As a result, several Palestinian/Jordanian institutions were recognized and permitted to serve the (non-political) needs of the community.
This strategy gradually collapsed with the first Palestinian intifada (1987), which paved the way for the Oslo “peace process” (1993). Under Oslo, the Jerusalem question was to be resolved through final status negotiations, based on a two-state paradigm. This meant that the city, which Israel claims as its “eternal” and undivided capital, was officially up for (future) division. Through the Gaza-Jericho agreement (1994), Oslo also created the PA, which soon established its own presence in its declared capital, East Jerusalem, primarily through its security forces.
Responding to these developments, Israel entrenched its control over occupied Jerusalem and dropped the liberal affectations of previous policies. This shift became even more pronounced with the eruption of the second Palestinian intifada (2000).
An integral part of this continuing policy shift is an ongoing attack on Palestinian civil society. From 2001-2011 alone, approximately twenty-eight institutions serving the Palestinian community in Jerusalem, from charities, human rights organizations, and service centers, have been closed. The assaults are meant to eliminate nationalist expression, silence dissent, and ensure Palestinian dependency on Israeli institutions, thereby “increasing the strength of Israel’s occupation.”
The latest attack against the GIS exemplifies muscle flexing over Jerusalem by a government determined to impose a one-state (apartheid) “solution” over Israel/Palestine.