How Israel uses maps to erase Palestinian ties to the land

Aug 10, 2016 12:00 AM

Allegations that Google had wiped Palestine from its online maps have created a storm of protest.

While the accusation has proven to be unfounded, even the misconception that Palestine had been deleted from Google Maps struck a raw nerve among Palestinians and their supporters who are all too aware of how Israel has deployed maps against them to erase their ties to the land and bolster its own claims.

"The Israelis used and are using maps to erase the Palestinian presence in this country," says historian Johnnie Mansour, an Arab citizen of Israel who teaches at Beit Berl Academic College near Tel Aviv. Mr Mansour is the author of a book on how the northern port city of Haifa was transformed after its Arab neighbourhoods were captured by Jewish forces during the 1948 nakba, or catastrophe of Palestinian displacement. He found that three quarters of its streets that bore Arab names until 1948 were renamed with Hebrew ones.

More recently, he said, he had noticed the sign of a company which is building new apartments in Wadi Salib, an area that was once an Arab neighbourhood. The sign termed it "the new neighbourhood" without any reference to its Arabic name, which means Valley of the Cross.

"Changing the name is changing the heritage so people won’t know the past," he said.

After the nakba, in which about 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled from the Arab-Israeli fighting, Israel destroyed some 400 Palestinian villages, according to Mr Mansour. Although a map in a Hebrew book from 1949 about fighting in the northern part of the country listed many of the villages, subsequent maps deleted them, Mr Mansour said.

In his book Sacred Landscape, the Israeli scholar Meron Benvenisti details how the government formed a committee to rename what had been Arab locales in the south of the country after the nakba. He quotes prime minister David Ben-Gurion as writing to the committee: "We are obliged to remove the Arabic names for reasons of state. Just as we do not recognise the Arabs’ political proprietorship of the land, so also we do not recognise their spiritual proprietorship and their names.’’

In response to a query from The National, a Google spokesman clarified that the company had not deleted Palestine from Google Maps. "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," the spokesman said.

Sparking much of the furore against Google was a statement by the Palestinian Journalists’ Forum declaring that Palestine had been removed from Google Maps and that this was "part of the Israeli scheme to establish its name as a legitimate state for generations to come and abolish Palestine once and for all." Soon a new hashtag was created #PalestineIsHere in which people voiced their dismay at Google.

A petition drafted in March urging Google to include Palestine on their maps has gained popularity dramatically in recent days, with a total of close to 260,000 signatures.

Meanwhile, a spokesman in Ramallah for the PLO, Xavier Abu Eid, took strong issue with Google omitting to label the West Bank and Gaza Strip as Palestine. "That all countries in the region have a name and we don’t is problematic," he told The National. "It’s definitely not up to Google to define what’s a state and what isn’t. A hundred and thirty eight states recognise Palestine and being under occupation doesn’t negate that. The state of Palestine is a state on the 1967 borders and that’s what should be in their maps," he said.

Liberal Israelis are also dismayed at what they consider to be the deployment of maps since 1967 to undermine prospects for a peaceful compromise with the Palestinians. They recall that after the 1967 war in which Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza, the government took a decision to erase the "green line" armistice line that had separated Israel and the West Bank. Conceptually this placed the West Bank within Israel. After the right-wing Likud party was elected in 1977, the West Bank was referred to in government parlance by the biblical names, Judea and Samaria.

"One secret of the success of the settlement movement is that people have been taught the wrong facts" like that the West Bank is part of Israel, says Dror Etkes, director of the Israeli NGO Kerem Navot which monitors government land policies. He added that mapping that gives prominence to settlements and "erases" Palestinian villages is conveying to the public the impression that the West Bank is inhabited primarily by Jews.

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