UPDATE: Google Maps was accused of inserting itself into the protracted conflict between Israel and Palestine when the latter territory “disappeared” from the digital atlas, but the company now says that nothing changed on their map at all. Read the full updated story here.
“There has never been a ‘Palestine’ label on Google Maps, however we discovered a bug that removed the labels for ‘West Bank’ and ‘Gaza Strip.’ We’re working quickly to bring these labels back to the area.”
I thought it was just rumours. But it’s true; no more Palestine on the google map pic.twitter.com/AZIGAAhnuq
— شا (@_shrmla) August 6, 2016
Instead of featuring the name of Palestine, Google Maps plots out the general location of the state with a broken line. Currently heralding the entire region is the title “Israel,” which prompted an angered response from the Palestinian Journalists’ Forum.
“[This] is part of the Israeli scheme to establish its name as a legitimate state for generations to come and abolish Palestine once and for all. The move is also designed to falsify history, geography as well as the Palestinian people’s right to their homeland, and a failed attempt to tamper with the memory of Palestinians and Arabs as well as the world.”
so google completely removed palestine from google maps. I love how normalized erasure and stealing land is in 2016 pic.twitter.com/nS5E95p4D1
— anne from accounting (@dearmrchrist) August 6, 2016
In a Change.org petition addressed to Google posted in March, 150,000 people have called for the company to return Palestine to the map. In the letter, Zak Martin accuses the internet giant of being “complicit in the Israeli government’s ethnic cleansing.”
“The omission of Palestine is a grievous insult to the people of Palestine and undermines the efforts of the millions of people who are involved in the campaign to secure Palestinian independence and freedom from Israeli occupation and oppression. This is an important issue, as Google Maps are now regarded as definitive by people around the world, including journalists, students and others carrying out research into the Israel-Palestine situation.”
— Hassan. (@Larbiva) July 30, 2016
Google Maps finds itself in a difficult position as the world’s go-to resource for physical representations of the earth. Palestine is just one of dozens of disputed territories that, no matter how they are divided, will manage to irk one group or another. Writing for The New York Times, Frank Jacobs noted how the service had become the de facto way that many demarcate the world’s frontiers.
“Over the past decade, Google Earth and Google Maps have become the online cartographic resources of reference. But popularity does not bestow authority…. Yet by virtue of its ubiquity, Google is often the arbiter of first recourse for borders and toponyms. So where Google’s maps show borders or place names that deviate from official usage or stray into international disputes, they may cause confusion, offense or worse.”
Issues with Palestine and Israel are hardly the first time this lack of consensus has come to a head. In 2010, Google Maps incited a long-boiling skirmish between Nicaragua and Costa Rica when the former country invaded the latter after seeing that the border changed in its favor on the online cartography resource. Nicaraguan troops stormed the area to erect a national flag, which resulted in a show of force from Costa Rica in the form of 70 police officers. Oddly enough, reported Wired, the whole ordeal wouldn’t have happened had they used Microsoft’s Bing.
Because of potential for unintended consequences, Google Maps has been known to tailor its product to the country that it’s being viewed in, although it’s not certain if this is the case with Palestine. Sometimes those choices are based on local law, which may officially restrict such depictions, such as India and Pakistan’s contentious Kashmir region.
Complaint filed against Google maps for wrong depiction of India’s boundaries
— News18 (@CNNnews18) December 14, 2014
When asked about the practice by Quartz, a Google spokesperson responded that the company always seeks to cause as little controversy as possible with its border choices.
“Google Maps makes every effort to depict disputed regions and features objectively… Where we have local versions, we follow local regulations for naming and borders.”
Google Maps will find it difficult to achieve objectivity no matter how it addresses Palestine. Of the 193 United Nations member states, 136, around 71 percent, recognize the state of Palestine. Notably absent from this list of supporters are the United States and most of Western Europe. However, until the UN Security Council votes to establish the nation of Palestine, the support from various UN members for Palestine is considered a recommendation, not statehood, according to the UN Charter.
[Image via danielo/Shuttershock]