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The Map With No Name

posted on: Dec 10, 2020

By: Katie Teague/Arab America Contributing Writer

When you think about it, a map is more than just markings on a page; it is one way we confirm the sovereignty (or lack thereof) of nations and states around us. In a digital age when we can access these maps with the tap of a finger, their impact holds more weight than ever before. It is for this reason that Google received hate after allegedly removing Palestine from their virtual maps. Keep in mind, the purpose of this article is not to point fingers at any one individual or group, but rather to evaluate the role a billion-dollar company like Google plays in shaping how we view the world.

The year was 2016. A journalism group in Gaza noticed that Google Maps was not depicting Palestine, including the designated areas of Gaza and the West Bank. As news of the absent title and associated regions swept across the Middle East, many were furious with the company. Hashtags, boycotts, and a petition to put Palestine back on the map were just a few of the many reactions to the event (for a link to the petition, see below). When a site called “Engadget” reached out to Google to inquire about the situation, this was their response:

“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.”

Regardless of whether or not this was an error, the fact that the Internet responded the way it did goes to show how something as simple as a map can have a huge impact on our perceptions. Nowadays, if you search “Palestine” on Google Maps, you will see the areas of Gaza and the West Bank sectioned off with dashed lines. These territories are collectively called a “de jure sovereign state”, which means that although Palestine is a legitimate government, it does not command its own territory. At a minimum, individual cities are identified as Palestinian.

Yet, as explained by the company, the “Palestine” label was never actually there to begin with. The impact of such a detail is more than about a trending hashtag or signing a petition. The missing text symbolizes a disregard for a government and people fighting for recognition. According to Caitlin Dewey in her Washington Post article on the issue, Palestine is not the only instance of controversy surrounding Google’s understanding of the world:

“Taiwan is described as an independent country, and Ireland’s fourth-largest city is referred to by its nationalist name. Jerusalem, which is claimed by both Israel and Palestine, is listed as Israel’s capital alone. And Crimea, which is likewise claimed by both Russia and the Ukraine, is mapped differently depending on which country you’re searching from.”   

But Google Maps isn’t the only service without Palestine.  In writing this article, I checked Bing Maps to see how they depicted the area and discovered the same results.  And aside for faint red lines carving out the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Apple Maps doesn’t even recognize the two territories.  Don’t believe me?  Try it for yourself.

Lacking a physical title on the map is no doubt devastating for those living in Palestine and for supporters throughout the world.  However, imagine the impact this has on individuals unfamiliar or undecided about the conflict between Israel and Palestine, particularly youth.  Familiarity with the world around us is a necessary and dutiful part of being human, but how can we accurately do that when virtual maps share different perspectives of an untrue reality?

Again, whether or not our mapping services themselves intended to erase Palestine, looking at these issues from a distance is crucial.  As Dewey remarks, “even Google and Apple, which appear so removed and authoritative, bring their own interpretations to these important questions.”  If we can take a step back and draw our own conclusions based on research and critical thinking, we will see through the subliminal imprints left behind by these companies.  Only then can we devise the most effective plans for sharing and preserving the real truth.

Here is the petition link:

Check out Arab America’s blog here!