Opinion |

Why Do Google and Apple Maps Recognize Illegal Israeli Settlements, but Not Palestine?

Despite their claims, the two tech giants' ubiquitous, influential maps and navigation tools aren't value-neutral at all. Just ask a Palestinian

Haya Haddad
George Zeidan
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Screenshot: Searching for Palestine on Google Maps
Screenshot: Searching for Palestine on Google MapsCredit: Screenshot
Haya Haddad
George Zeidan

The products developed by two tech giants Google and Apple are everywhere in our lives. Their technology is so ubiquitous and integrated into our everyday routine that we don’t always realize that they are shaping the contours of how we understand not just the digital world, but the physical world too.

Nowhere is that clearer than their domination of the online mapping market: and it is here that their products reveal that they are not value-neutral mirrors of reality at all, but amplify vested political interests. Just ask a Palestinian.

You won’t find hundreds of Palestinian villages, as they are missing from the maps produced by Google and Apple or on their GPS services. Palestine doesn’t appear. A decade and a half of far more recent history is erased when the division of the West Bank into Area A, B and C according to the Oslo Accords is ignored.

Together, these products and services control the vast majority of the market for global online digital maps. These maps are reframing geopolitical reality for an audience of billions.

In an attempt to inject the lived reality of Palestinians into these hyper-influential global maps, on October 13, 2016, ten marathon runners from Right to Movement Palestine, including one of the authors of this op-ed, George Zeidan, participated in the "Race to Recognize Palestine Relay." The route went from Google’s main campus in Mountain View, California to Apple’s Infinite Loop in Cupertino.

Participants handed a letter to representatives from both hi-tech companies that urged them to offer detailed maps that tangibly recognize the existence of Palestine, and restore the Palestinian villages that have been ‘disappeared’ from their maps. 

As runners, the letter urged the high-tech giants to include Palestinians villages not just for  moral and political reasons, but also for very real practical ones: these are villages in which and between long-distance runners train. Incomplete coverage of navigation services harms their ability to train safely.  

The tech companies’ general stance on the mapping of Palestine is to shift the blame to the international community. Palestine is considered as a "non-member observer state" in the United Nations, and not a full member state. They claim that they shouldn’t be expected to take a position on such a political and controversial issue: instead it should be discussed in the offices of the UN and not in theirs. 

However this stance is duplicitous. Palestine is not treated the same as other territories over which there is a political dispute. In other controversial regions, Google and Apple Maps find more flexibility. They show the international borders differently depending on where the users are located. 

For example, Turkey is the only country in the world that recognizes Northern Cyprus as a country. When searching for Northern Cyprus from a Turkish IP address you will clearly see Northern Cyprus as its own location with its own borders. But when North Cyprus is viewed from any other country including Cyprus, you see it all within the borders of one country, Cyprus.

When searching for the state of Arunachal Pradesh in India, users with an Indian IP see a border that complies with the Indian government's position. But when searching the same region from China the borders appear as "South Tibet," very much under Chinese control. As users from Palestine we see the region of Arunachal Pradesh as its own region marked with a dotted line, indicating that it is a disputed area.

Following the same reasoning, navigation services should ensure similar treatment in the context of Palestine. This historical and political conflict that has been going on for over 70 years should be recognized by being marked as disputed areas but with the names of both parties to the conflict. 

When searching a map of any country, Google pulls up a map with the name of the country covering its geographical area in bold black letters and showing its borders with solid black lines. However, if you input the search term "Palestine" from any IP address, you’ll get a map of historical Palestine with Israel recognized in bold black letters, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in light grey capital letters. 

There is no mention of the Palestinian Authority, no indication of the "Palestinianness" of the West Bank and Gaza, no recognition that the West Bank and Gaza are anything but seemingly integral parts of Israel and within its international borders. In other words: no Palestine at all. 

But what is particularly egregious is that if Palestine is too controversial to mark, the tech giants have no parallel crisis of impartiality when it comes to Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank. They are mapped and presented in full, with accurate navigation. The settlements are not marked as disputed areas; rather, they are accorded the same neutral status as towns within the Green Line.

Side-by-side comparison of area around the Susiya settlement: Google Maps (L) in 2016 before it added 200 villages; NGO Bimkom's map of the same area showing the true number of Palestinian villages
Side-by-side comparison of area around the Susiya settlement: Google Maps (L) in 2016 before it added 200 villages; NGO Bimkom's map of the same area showing the true number of Palestinian villagesCredit: Screenshot/Google Maps; Bimkom

Yet, they are considered illegal by international law on the basis of a breach of the Fourth Geneva Conviction, according to the United Nations General Assembly, the United Nations Security Council and the International Court of Justice - the very authorities that Google and Apple always cite when claiming they don’t want to get into trouble about Palestine. "Controversial," "disputed" and "political" settlements are fine, Palestine isn’t. 

If the aim is consistency, then hi-tech companies should mark all the settlements as disputed areas, at least when users search the area from outside Palestine and Israel. For example, Gush Etzion, a settlement south of Bethlehem, should be recognized as a disputed area instead of a regular Israeli city.

That settlements are presented without the framing of their illegality serves to normalize the settlements. The double standard is blatant: the maps fail to afford Palestinians the same privileges that Israeli settlers and their boosters enjoy.

More importantly, this lack of recognition has both symbolic and real world ramifications. Symbolically, it whitewashes the settlements as undisputed, and looks away when faced with the cantonization of the West Bank, and nullifies even the limited scope of the Palestinian Authority, by not differentiating between the different jurisdictions laid out in the Oslo Accords.

It is a short step to real world repercussions. Google and Apple ignore all the physical restrictions on Palestinians’ movement: starting with the separation wall but also checkpoints and settler-only roads. The companies don’t even mark how the West Bank is divided between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in terms of civilian and security control, between zones A, B, and C.

For Palestinians who have first-hand experience navigating restrictions on their movement, the location of the different zones in the West Bank is crucial; its lack makes life in the West Bank that much harder. 

Jerusalem is featured in Google and Apple maps as the capital of Israel in the same way as any other undisputed capital in the world, in bold black letters. But Israel annexed the Palestinian half of the city, East Jerusalem, in 1967, in a move that was against international law. Palestinians have steadfastly insisted that East Jerusalem should be recognized as the Palestinian capital of their future state, but its occupation by Israel is invisible on these maps.

 The question remains why Google and Apple are not holding the same standards for disputed areas to the Israeli settlements as they do other contested territories around the globe.

Palestinian runners joined with American activists in Silicon valley demanding recognition of hundreds of Palestinian villages in the tech giants' maps and navigation tools, 2016
Palestinian runners joined with American activists in Silicon valley demanding recognition of hundreds of Palestinian villages in the tech giants' maps and navigation tools, 2016Credit: George Zeidan

No one is actually expecting high-tech companies operating in highly competitive and neoliberal environment to stick their necks out for Palestinian human rights. Yet we do expect from supposedly apolitical, unbiased and international companies to treat Israelis and Palestinians equally, and at the very least recognize the Israeli settlements as disputed areas. 

For the sake of both moral and political fairness, and to offer a usable tool for Palestinians, Google and Apple should offer a full coverage of the entire West Bank that distinguishes between the different zones of control and marks crossing points. 

As a result of our letter to Google and Apple, and through the joint efforts of the "Rebuilding Alliance" NGO, and the office of Democartic Congresswomen Anna Eshoo of California, Google documented and added 236 Palestinian villages to its maps products in spring of 2017.

Mapping these villages was a significant step for the local, regional and international recognition of the existence of Palestine. Yet, despite this progress, the lack of digital recognition of Palestine by major global mapping players persists, exposing wider and troubling repercussions for the Palestinian future. 

For instance, see how tech giants cover Area C. This area constitutes under 60 percent of the West Bank. It is controlled by Israel and holds the greatest number of illegal settlements. It is also home to thousands of Palestinians and hundreds of their villages. Citing alleged planning violations, Israel constantly demolishes Palestinian houses in these villages.

When Google and Apple erase Palestinian villages from their navigation, but proudly mark settlements, the effect is complicity in the Israeli nationalist narrative that settlers came to "redeem" and "civilize" a "land without a people."

Their maps effectively assist the settlement enterprise, by removing the digital record of living Palestinians whose lands are under constant threat of confiscation for the use of settlements.

And it weakens the the Palestinian case for statehood, by giving an inaccurate picture of our actual presence. Their technology is disregarding today’s reality, and damaging our future.

Technologies so attuned to market needs but with minimal moral considerations are increasing the day-to-day hardship of Palestinians living under occupation, and their right to build their own state. 

George Zeidan is co-founder of Right to Movement Palestine, an initiative to illustrate the reality of Palestinian life through sports. A Fulbright awardee with a master's degree from the Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern California, he is a program manager for an International humanitarian organization in Jerusalem. He grew up in Jerusalem’s Old City. Twitter: gjzeidan

Haya Haddad is a social activist and Fulbright graduate student at The New School in New York City. She studies international affairs and specializes in human rights and social justice

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