Will Google put Palestine back on the map?

Haitham Ahmed , Monday 3 Aug 2020

Palestinians and their supporters float the idea of a general boycott after Google and Apple remove the word Palestine from their Middle East maps

Will Google put Palestine back on the map?

Removing the name Palestine from Google Maps triggered angry objections by the Palestinian leadership and people, rejecting the policies of two US companies that ignore Palestinian historical facts and demanding that the global search engine reverse its decision.

When using the search engine to look for “Palestine” maps, neighbouring countries appear on the image but the name Palestine is nowhere to be found. A side note on Wikipedia states: “The state of Palestine is a term that refers to political entities demanded by various parties, or belongs to political entities that are not currently independent, or could also refer to previous political entities in Palestine that are demanding its creation on part or all of the historic territories of Palestine, which is what many Palestinians aspire to. None of these entities is independent so far.”

Reham Owda, writer and political analyst, said previously the name Palestine was not officially on Google Maps or Apple Maps, but in the past Google used the term “Palestinian Territories” to refer only to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Owda said that neglecting to write Palestine on Google Maps and Apple Maps, or at least “Palestinian Territories” on the areas of the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem, is a huge capitulation by these companies to Israeli pressure and shows great bias towards Israel. Writing the name Israel over all the area including Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem is implied recognition by Google and Apple that West Bank territories belong to Israel. This helps legitimise Israel’s policy of annexing settlements there.

Owda said one reason why Google and Apple refuse to add the name Palestine on their maps, even though the State of Palestine is a member of the UN, is because they do not want to start a quarrel or litigation with the government of Israel which closely monitors any map updates and has close and influential relations with Jewish businessmen who own shares in these companies. One must also factor in technological and economic ties between Israeli IT companies and Google and Apple, which means these two US companies do not want to spoil their economic and technological relations with Israel or be subject to a possible smear campaign by the Jewish lobby in the US.

Owda added that both companies are following the lead of US foreign policy, since the US has not yet recognised the State of Palestine. She anticipates that Israel will try to pressure any global institution or company that promotes Palestine in its products, because Tel Aviv is concerned about intense Palestinian efforts to gain international recognition of the State of Palestine — especially in the EU — in response to an attempt by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to annex settlements in Jerusalem and West Bank to Israeli sovereignty.

Saed Hassouna, an expert on new media, said the two companies want to limit access to research content on Palestine, especially since they control the largest global search engines. Hassouna said this is only a step away from banning and restricting Palestinian content on Facebook. He believes this is not a technical mistake or lack of knowledge of the geopolitical importance of Palestine, but is part of a fast and furious war of “Judaisation”.

Hassouna explained the omission continues due to the absence of Arab support for the Palestinian cause, and an attempt to change world public opinion on key national Palestinian principles, most importantly the issue of refugees. He said that underestimating this digital move could lead to other steps, such as bans and restrictions. However, “activists and those on social media have proved once again that Palestine is present in their conscience and in their digital activism.” He added: “This shows determination and effective solidarity with the Palestinian cause.”

Hassouna called on the Palestinian ministries of foreign affairs and communication to take real steps and officially protest this racist policy, since Palestine is a member of the UN. He added that the Russian search engine Yandex is the only one that has maintained the location of the State of Palestine.

Palestinian Minister of Communication and IT Ishaq Sider said his office is looking into alternative search engines to Google, such as the Russian or Chinese ones, to protest the removal of Palestine from maps on US-based search engines. Sider said his ministry will take several steps, including putting pressure on Google and Apple through their servers, which are used by Palestinian companies. He added there are also legal steps that will be taken — such as suing these companies since their actions violate international law and UN resolutions. There will also be a task force and crisis management unit in the ministry to work scientifically on this issue.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Malki, said: “We are looking into legal action in response to removing the name of Palestine on Google and Apple maps.” He explained that the Palestinian government is researching which international legal forums they should approach to sue these companies. He believes it will be straightforward to take these companies to court if they insist on violating international law. “They are very mistaken to handle Palestine with such intentional political flippancy,” he said.

Google responded in kind: “Omitting Palestine from maps is within the context of presenting regions that are under dispute with objectivity by using a dotted grey border line.” It continued: “We have not changed our policy of showing areas on maps. Google gathers information from organisations and mapping sources when determining how to show disputed borders.”

Google is the most popular Internet search engine in Palestine and the world, and the leaders of Google and Apple are weighing their profits and losses, and want to have the most users for the highest profits. In commerce, companies sometimes face political issues which they must address and adopt a political position, which is reflected in the search engine’s operations.

Youssef Rizk, a Palestinian expert and adviser to former Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad, said this issue can be summarised in two points. First, the companies are biased to Israel and ignore the Palestinian and Arab perspective. They removed the name of Palestine without consulting with Palestinian leaders or giving any consideration to the losses they will incur in the occupied Palestinian territories, and possibly Arab countries. More importantly, they have aligned themselves with Israel and adopted a mistaken political and factual position.

“Second, the occupation power that signed the Oslo Accords with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) is working on undermining this deal. It is lobbying to remove Palestine from Google and remove Palestine for West Bank areas, because according to Zionist strategy Palestine does not exist in reality and should not exist in the realm of knowledge and research,” explained Rizk.

He condemned the delayed reaction of the ministries of communication and foreign affairs which are still “looking into” suing Google and Apple. “What are they ‘looking into’?” he retorted. “Why don’t we take action immediately? Only now are they looking into putting pressure on Google and Apple via their interests in the Palestinian territories? Only now are they looking into pressuring Google through public action in the West Bank and Gaza?”

He added: “Yes, it’s better late than never, but why this delay on this pressing issue? Why did we not have alternative plans when we knew Google’s negative posture, well before it removed Palestine from the map?”

Rizk argued that it is in Palestine’s best interests that it remains on the world and Middle East map, which requires the Palestinian government to immediately switch to using Russian or Chinese search engines. Also, suing Google and Apple for encouraging the occupation and its racist practices. This requires Arab support to leave Google and cause it massive losses. These steps should be simultaneous and immediate. Using language such as “looking into” is a sign of the government’s failure, Rizk said.

Palestine is recognised by the UN and 136 member states as an independent state, but not the US, which is home to both these companies.

This is not the first time that Google is accused of removing Palestine from its popular mapping service. In 2016, a petition on change.org protested that every mention of Palestine “was removed based on the insistence of the Israeli government”. The petition, which demanded adding the name Palestine to online maps, and signed by more than 800,000 people, added that “the founders of Google are Jews who have close ties with Israel and its leaders”.

Google ignored the petition.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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