In Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith happens upon an old newspaper clipping that proves that Big Brother had framed three men for crimes against the state. All past evidence contradicting the regime’s ever-changing “truth” was supposed to have been destroyed, but this one scrap had been missed. Winston finished the job — though to his ultimate demise, destroying the evidence could not erase the knowledge from his mind.
What Orwell could not have foreseen was a world in which Big Brother did not need to destroy evidence, a world in which evidence did not exist in physical form and could be changed at will without a trace. All “copies” of a virtual newspaper would instantly update to every new “truth”. Thought-criminals might, of course, have saved a copy of the previous virtual file, or even a screen-grab, but all these were nothing but numbers on media. What proof of whose sets of digits were the true ones, when there is no physical, forensic trail? True, false, faked, real, new, old, past, present, cause, effect, and even time-stamps and digital signatures, are ultimately nothing more than sets of ones and zeros with no distinction, because — to rewrite another Orwell novel — all numbers are created equal, none more equal than others. Whoever controls the virtual printing press that creates and rewrites reality as needed, wears the Wagnerian ring of the Nibelung — is granted the power to rule the world.
Welcome to the present. Welcome, for example, to Google Maps.
Google Maps has done to Palestine what Big Brother was unable to do to Winston’s newspaper clipping. An indigenous civilization has long thrived on land you want to steal? No problem — poof, we’ve erased it. It’s gone. Not just on the screen where we hit ‘delete’, but on everybody’s screen —including the wayward scrap that Winston Smith stumbled across.
Google’s attempt to de-exist Palestine has been well-reported*, along with its “explanation” that no country by that name exists. But even that vacuous excuse fails to address its refusal to chart access to any place in Palestine except illegal settlements — that is, its blocking cartographic information from Palestinians as a tool of ethnic control.
Google Maps has turned Palestinian towns and cities into ghosts. They appear (unlike the term Palestine, Google cannot pretend they don’t exist), yet according to the technology Goliath they do not exist as places one can actually get to. They float in a different dimension. If you want to go between West Bank towns, even major cities such as Jericho, Bethlehem, or Hebron, Google will reply Sorry, we could not calculate driving directions from…
But if West Bank settlers want to visit other West Bank settlements, Google is at their service.
Abu Dis is a busy Palestinian university town neighboring Jerusalem; Technology giant Google, however, “can’t find a way there”, not from anyplace. But nearby Abu Dis lies the Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumin, which is no problem for Google no matter where you’re starting off — even if it’s from London or Cape Town.
Nor can Google figure out how to get to Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank — not even from Bethlehem, twenty-two km north on Route 60. When I had to drive from Ben-Gurion Airport to Hebron, I had to lie to Big Brother: I punched in one of the Hebron-area Israeli settlements instead. This Google mapped out with pleasure, and when I got to familiar Route 60, I turned off my telescreen.
Jericho has been continually inhabited since millennia before the Biblical realm whose name was taken by the modern state on whose behalf Google is conducting these cartographic lies. But although Google feigns ignorance on how to get to Jericho, it will gladly direct you to nearby Beit HaArava settlement. Google, indeed, would rather take you from Israel to countries with whom Israel is at war, rather than to Palestine. Lebanon? Syria? Or maybe a holiday in sunny Riyadh? Easy.
Israel used its friends in the US government to attempt to control another aspect of the mapping of Palestine-Israel: satellite detail. In 1997, a year before Google was founded, Senators Jon Kyl and Jeff Bingaman successfully authored an Amendment to the Military Defense National Defense Authorization Act that restricted the detail of publicly available satellite views of the land under Israeli control. But this Act can only control US companies, and its effectiveness waned as cartographers not bound by US law offered satellite images in greater detail.
Printed maps must still be destroyed the old way. When HarperCollins produced a (printed) book for the Middle East market with a map which did not label Israel, the uproar was palpable; the publisher was accused of antisemitism and of wishing to “wipe Israel off the map”, understanding the phrase’s connotation far beyond the cartographic. The books were pulped.
But onscreen maps do not need to be pulped, and even the same map is not static. Information and nomenclature may appear or disappear on some pecking order as the view is zoomed in or out. When the word “Israel” did not appear on an onscreen Air France flight map, the Jerusalem Post headline similarly read “Air France wipes Israel off of the map…literally”. Although Air France’s routes includes Tel Aviv, it was accused of engaging in BDS. The airline apologized and fixed the issue, explaining (plausibly) that the omission had been the result of “map scale and display problem”. Some Middle Eastern airlines’ maps continue to omit Israel, whether as a political statement or prioritizing onscreen space if the airline does not fly to Israel.
Although Google has positioned itself as most people’s default cartographer, there are alternatives. Here is how other major mapping services fare at writing, from a London IP address, a cleared cache, and Firefox. All these label Israel with or without searching for it, whereas none of these indicate “Palestine” or “Palestinian Territories” without entering it as a search term, and only one — MapQuest — indicates Palestine even when it is entered as a search term.
- Google Maps: Palestine comes up on a search? No. Labels Palestine? No. Directions to Palestinian locales? No.
- MapQuest: Palestine comes up on a search? Yes. Labels Palestine? Yes, as “State of Palestine”(!). Directions to Palestinian locales? Yes, many, if not comprehensive.
- Bing: Palestine comes up on a search? No. Labels Palestine? No. Directions to Palestinian locales? Yes.
- Rand McNally: Palestine comes up on a search? No. Labels Palestine? No. Directions to Palestinian locales? No.
- Waze (Israeli-developed, now owned by Google): Palestine comes up on a search? No. Labels Palestine? No. Directions to Palestinian locales? Extremely limited.
- HereWeGo: Palestine comes up on a search? No. Labels Palestine? No. Directions to Palestinian locales? Limited.
Although MapQuest is the best here, if our simple criterion is: Does the map treat Palestine without prejudice as compared with its coverage of other well-populated areas, especially neighboring ones? … all fail.
Google’s anomaly, and clue to its madness, is Gaza. While it hardly needs to be said that Google refuses to connect Gaza with the outside world, Google is perfectly willing to direct the people caught within that “prison”. The obvious reason is that there are of course no Israeli settlements in Gaza at present. And so Google will map out driving routes between major Gaza cities, such as Gaza City on the north and Rafah on the south, or between smaller places like Al Qarara and Nuseirat Camp.
The enormous benefits brought, and still to be brought, by digital technology and the internet are at least as profound as those of the advent of printing six centuries ago, and arguably more so. This new revolution brings with it changes to human society that we cannot yet fully grasp; but at the very least, as we observe ourselves in real time, we should call out its obvious abuses, its exploitation for immoral ends.
Maps are by definition charged creatures — there is no such thing as a “neutral” map. All maps reflect the collective cultural, historical, scientific, thematic, and aesthetic biases of their makers. There are however maps whose intent is to present their subjects “fairly” within the world in which they exist and the purpose they were created to serve. Google Map’s treatment of Palestine is, rather, cartographic thuggery, the use of its dominant platform as a weapon for Israeli aggression, subjugation, and ethnic cleansing.
Tom Suárez’ writing on map history has figured into today’s map wars: his 1999 book “Early Mapping of Southeast Asia” (Charles E. Tuttle) was among the evidence (Annex 528) used by Philippine negotiators in their successful UN suit against China’s attempt to claimed sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly islands.
* I highly recommend downloading the excellent PDF report by the Arab Center for Social Media Advancement, Mapping Segregation – Google Maps and the Human Rights of Palestinians (September, 2018), which systematically address issues not covered in this article, such as “unrecognized” villages, checkpoints, and apartheid roads.
- Kyl–Bingaman Amendment, Public Law 104-201, Section 1064, Military Defense National Defense Authorization Act for 1997.
Previous articles on the subject:
- Map map on the wall, who’s most existing of them all? (Tom Suarez, April 30, 2017)
- Google blames bug for removing ‘West Bank’ and ‘Gaza’ from Israel/Palestine map (Wilson Dizard, August 10, 2016)
- Google and the eternal, undivided capital of the Jewish people (Tom Suarez, January 10, 2013)
- Mondo Exclusive: Google map of Israeli settlements from leaked database (Adam Horowitz, February 3, 2009)
- Google Maps’ Endangering Palestinian Human Rights
- Why Does Google Maps Not Recognize Palestine or its Roads?
- Lost in Occupation: How Google Maps is erasing Palestine
… and the usual “it’s complicated” obfuscation in The Guardian: Google Maps accused of deleting Palestine – but the truth is more complicated