How a Google-owned Navigation App Left Israeli Soldiers Eyeless in a Palestinian Refugee Camp

Two soldiers losing their way in the West Bank with the help of Waze makes a perfect parable for a nation that has also has lost its way.

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Israeli soldiers extricated from Palestinian refugee camp after their jeep was hit by firebomb in Qalandiyah. March 1, 2016.
Israeli soldiers extricated from Palestinian refugee camp after their jeep was hit by firebomb in Qalandiyah. March 1, 2016. Credit: Midabrim Communications - Simchastream
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

When the dust settles from the violent confrontation in Qalandiyah on Monday night, Israelis will probably only remember one thing from the event – that Waze, the national app, has a safe mode that you really should make sure hasn’t been disabled if you don’t want to end up under fire in a Palestinian refugee camp.

Israeli media, mainstream and social, have focused mainly on the vagaries of the navigation app in the 24 hours since the clashes took place, in which one Palestinian man was killed and more than 20 Palestinians and Israeli soldiers were injured, in rioting that erupted near the military vehicle after it strayed into the camp, and special-forces had to move in to extricate the troops.

Executives at the Israeli tech company, sold three years ago to Google for a record-breaking 1.3 billion dollars, probably couldn’t believe how local events grabbed their attention from Silicon Valley back to the absurdity back home. But then nothing could encapsulate so well how absurd Israel’s situation is now. The Startup Nation with a high-tech army deploying Iron Dome and David Sling missile defense batteries, capable of picking out incoming rockets from the sky, can’t prevent two of its soldiers, themselves members of an elite unit, from taking a wrong-turn and nearly getting killed or captured.

It’s the kind of screw-up of which military life is full, but it’s also the perfect parable for an advanced society with its head so high in the sky it has simply allowed itself to go completely blind to the reality on the ground. Both soldiers, ironically members of the K9 unit Oketz, which manage sniffer dogs trained to guide soldiers around explosive booby-traps, had nonetheless managed themselves to go astray.

One was quickly found, the other went missing for an hour. He had left his smartphone in the burning vehicle. The army initiated the Hannibal Directive, the procedure used when a soldier is feared to be captured, allowing nearby forces to use excessive fire to prevent an abduction, even at the risk of the soldier’s life.

This wasn’t happening on the Lebanese frontier or in the alleyways of Gaza, but in a northern suburb of Jerusalem. But as far as most Israelis are concerned, it could be on the other side of the moon. 

Qalandiyah is the West Bank’s twilight zone, split down the middle by the Separation Wall. Its southern streets are officially part of the Jerusalem municipality but receive no services from City Hall. North of the wall, it’s ostensibly the Palestinian Authority that is in charge, but in reality armed criminal organizations rule. A poor, tough neighborhood that Israel doesn’t want to administer, but its politicians won’t let go of, under the banner of keeping an “eternally united Jerusalem.”

Outsmarting Waze is a favorite pastime of Israeli drivers – getting to the destination earlier than the ETA, finding faster alternative routes, revealing back-roads which don’t exist on its maps. Now we’ve learned we can disable the navigation system’s default safe mode. But the national safe mode has been disabled long ago.

Dozens of militaries from around the globe send their officers to the IDF and the local defense industry to purchase the knowhow to guide missiles to pinpointed targets. But its soldiers still continue blundering into Palestinian refugee camps. Israel is a world-leader at developing navigation systems for everyone else but itself. 

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