How Google Maps refocused our attention on Palestine’s borders
Google found itself at the centre of a social media firestorm last week, accused of erasing Palestine from its maps. The company said it had never, in fact, used the term “Palestine” in the first place, and promised to fix what it said was a software bug that had removed the designations “West Bank” and “Gaza” from a map that distinguishes those occupied territories from pre-1967 Israel only by a dotted line.
The uproar was hardly surprising, but Google may actually have inadvertently done the Palestinians – and all who support their struggle for justice – an important service: its map reminds us that the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem that began in 1967 is not a temporary anomaly. Having persisted through three quarters of Israel’s history with no prospect of ending in the foreseeable future, it is a permanent feature of the political landscape.
The majority of Israel’s current Jewish population was not yet born or had not yet immigrated to Israel in 1967. They are not taught at school that East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and the Syrian Golan Heights are occupied territory, in which settling Israeli civilians violates international law. The maps in most of their textbooks don’t distinguish between pre-1967 Israel and occupied territories.
Israel’s leaders no longer even pretend that they intend to withdraw from those territories, and illegal settlements continue to expand. The 1993 Oslo peace process that envisaged creating a Palestinian state in the 1967 territories died in the year 2000. Sporadic conversations between president Mahmoud Abbas and his various Israeli counterparts in the 15 years since, when they weren’t simply photo ops, were “talks about talks”. And they don’t even bother with those any longer.
It remains important to Mr Abbas to sustain the belief – evidence notwithstanding – that a State of Palestine is emerging in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. This aspirational state may have been recognised by 136 countries, but Palestinian sovereignty as a physical political reality remains as remote as ever. Despite acquiring some of the symbolic accoutrements of statehood, the Palestinian Authority governs entirely on terms set by the Israeli occupiers.
The illusion that a process is underway to end the occupation also allows western governments to evade any responsibility to protect Palestinian human rights, and to suppress efforts to hold Israel accountable.
But last week’s demand that Google restore or recognise Palestine on its maps also raises the question of where Palestine begins and ends. The widely recognised right of return of Palestinian refugees to homes from which they were expelled during the Nakba of 1948, for example, refers to homes in pre-1948 Israel – or Palestine, as it was then known. (It is a demand for justice and restitution within what is, today, Israel.) That may be why the majority of Palestinian school text books describe as Palestine everything between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.
History, apparently, is not convinced by Oslo’s envisaged partition. The West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem were part of historic Palestine before 1948. This is not to deny Palestinian claims to justice, restitution and equal rights. On the contrary: what Google’s map can’t show is the unequal distribution of power relations within Israel/Palestine. Perhaps former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak can help: “As long as in this territory west of the Jordan River there is only one political entity called Israel it is going to be either non-Jewish, or non-democratic,” Mr Barak said in 2010. “If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.”
His use of the future tense is strange, because his “apartheid” scenario has been the status quo for the past 68 years. If the rituals of a zombie “peace process” fail to convince the world that the occupation is being ended, Israel faces the same prospect of international isolation as South Africa’s white-minority regime faced over its own apartheid system.
But Google Maps’ latest “bug” punctures the peace-process illusion. Users of the app will be familiar with “re-entering”, which is what Google Maps does when a turn-off has been missed, as it offers the driver a new route to the desired destination.
Israel long ago closed down the “two-state” route; Google Maps’ latest bug could be read as subtle re-entering, showing Palestinians that their route to justice may lie in seeking democratic equality and restitution in the single sovereign entity that exists west of the Jordan River.
Tony Karon teaches at the New School in New York
Updated: August 15, 2016 04:00 AM