Google was at the center of a storm recently, after a group of Palestinian journalists claimed that the tech giant had removed ‘Palestine’ from its map. As the statement was picked up and circulated, the hashtag #PalestineIsHere went viral on Twitter, and international media outlets covered the story.
Following the social media frenzy and press coverage, Google stated that ‘Palestine’ had not been removed because it had never been there in the first place. Instead, Google claimed, a “bug” had removed the labels for ‘West Bank’ and ‘Gaza Strip,’ which would be restored shortly.
For many, however, Google’s response simply highlighted an inexcusable omission; according to Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) spokesperson Xavier Abu Eid: “It’s definitely not up to Google to define what’s a state and what isn’t…The state of Palestine is a state on the 1967 borders and that’s what should be in their maps.”
Abu Eid has a point. Palestine is recognized as a state by 137 countries, has been a non-member observer state at the United Nations since 2012, and its athletes have competed in the Olympic games in Rio under the Palestinian flag.
At the very least, some pointed out, Google could label the West Bank and Gaza Strip as ‘Occupied Palestinian Territory,’ the name used by certain U.N. bodies and the International Court of Justice.
Others had a different angle. Ali Abunimah, author and co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, tweeted in response to the debate: “I’m totally opposed to Google adding ‘Palestine’ to maps if it applies only to bits of Palestine and not the whole country from river to sea.”
A Change.org petition asking Google “to recognize Palestine in Google Maps, and to clearly designate and identify the Palestinian territories illegally occupied by Israel,” had attracted more than 300,000 names by mid-August, over a period of five months (pre-dating the latest controversy).
This is clearly not just a technical issue; the story gained such traction because of a much wider, political context—specifically, the various efforts expended by Israel since 1948 to wipe Palestine from the map, and to deny that Palestine, or Palestinians themselves, ever existed.
In 1947-’49, pre-Israel Zionist militia and later the Israeli military destroyed some 400-500 Palestinian villages, expelling their inhabitants. Most villages were blown up, their lands leased to Jewish communities or made part of national parks.
But it wasn’t just dynamite and bulldozers; Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion cited “reasons of state” when he demanded that Arabic place names be removed. In three years, the Jewish National Fund assigned 200 new names.
Furthermore, this settler colonial process of erasure and replacement is still ongoing – and note that Israel’s borders remain undefined.
The expropriation of land in the West Bank for the expansion of illegal colonies continues, while in East Jerusalem, settlers promote the ‘City of David’ in Silwan. In the Negev, Israeli authorities seek to demolish the Palestinian village of Umm Al Hiran, in order to construct Hiran, a Jewish town.
Maps and mapping are at the heart of Israel’s colonization of Palestine, not only practically—it is an integral part of seizing land for settlements in the West Bank—but also with respect to how histories are rewritten and narratives created.
For example, the official map for tourists visiting Jerusalem’s Old City lists one Muslim site and five Christian sites out of a total of 57 locations—but does include the 25 buildings occupied by Jews in the Muslim Quarter.
In Jaffa, meanwhile, tourists are similarly given a map which does not once mention the words ‘Palestinian,’ ‘Arab’ or ‘Muslim.’
As a U.S. company, perhaps Google is following Washington’s lead in not putting ‘Palestine’ on the map (in any shape or form). Google also has economic interests in Israel. Furthermore, in 2013, Google acquired the Israeli map app Waze.
Whatever Google’s own motivations are, however, the issue is not going away anytime soon, as Palestinians contest and resist colonization and appropriation at every level—a battle ground that now includes online mapping.