One of the most drawn-out historical happenings of both this century and the one before is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. As modes of peace and of turmoil ebb and flow, the Holy Land remains one of the most contested regions of the world. As the Nakba (Arabic for Catastrophe) and the birth of the state of Israel enters its 70th year this month, there has been a growing emphasis on remembering a pre-1948 Holy Land, which some are doing by mapping Palestine.
The rise of digital mapping, alternatively known as digital cartography, has continued to grow since the introduction of open-source mapping in the early 2000s as a tool for mapping cities and regions. Part of the philosophy behind open-source mapping is ensuring that accurate geospatial data is made readily available to anyone with access to it. And because mapping has a long history of aligning with the narrative of those in power, mapping in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict strongly implicates that particular power dynamic.
Over the past few years, with growing accessibility to mapping platforms like Google Maps, urban residents have increasingly developed an understanding of their cities through digital representations – or in other words, digital maps – of cities. Citizens of the West Bank and Gaza, however, do not have equal access to these kinds of platforms, partially due to the sensitivity of mapping Palestine. This, however, hasn’t stopped mappers, researchers, and organizations from mapping Palestine.
Mapping Palestine and Power
In July 2017, Barcelona’s Museum of Contemporary Art held an exhibition titled ‘Forensic Architecture,’ which was curated by Israeli-British architect Eyal Weizman. Spanning the entire floor of the museum, the installation spoke to how buildings and other architectural structures can serve as witnesses to history.
At the installation, in a video of a Bedouin Palestinian village in the Negev Desert, two men held up number of documents to prove their ownership of a plot of land in order to stop the Israeli government from foreclosing it. Although the men’s attempts seem to go unnoticed by the bulldozers looming in the background, the video emphasizes how, for the Palestinian men, their Ottoman-era documents prove their connection to their land. However, to the Israeli government, only their modern-day documents and maps of the Negev Desert can be used as to prove land ownership.
Since 1948, the Israeli government has invested time and money in solidifying its claim to the Holy Land through border delineation, feeding directly into its narrative of history. An initiative called Palestine Open Maps, however, is working to challenge these claims by mapping Palestine.
By combining digital technologies and storytelling, the map was put together to provide online access to a set of 1:20,000 scale maps from the British Mandate of Palestine. Prior to the launch of Palestine Open Maps, detailed maps of historical Palestine had never been made public.
For the scores of Palestinians and Syrians that were expelled from their homes in the lead up to 1948 and in the years following it, there is little to no historical account of their villages. Similar to the ownership documents that the Bedouins from the Negev furnished, maps serve to legitimize both the past and the present. The historical erasure of some 530 villages is sacralized by Israeli maps, which refuse to recognize the existence of Palestinians in these areas prior to the establishment of the State of Israel.
The initiative is the result of a workshop put together by Canada-based Visualizing Palestine and Columbia University Studio-X Amman in March 2018. The maps themselves, which were recently digitized by the Israeli national library, are intended to evoke visual stories of Palestinians by highlighting geographies that have been hidden or forgotten.
Although these maps are a record of a different moment in history, their digitization serves multiple functions. As official maps of their time, they legitimize both the ongoing presence of Palestinians and their oral histories that have repeatedly been challenged. In the face of a more powerful narrative of history, Palestine Open Maps works against the dominant claim of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, providing another take on how the Levantine coast transformed over the course of 70 years.
Navigational Cartography of Palestine Today
Mapping, not only as a record of history, but also as a tool for recognition, plays a key role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. When in 2016, users noticed that Google Maps had allegedly removed the label ‘Palestine’ from its maps, many called to boycott the mapping giant. This, however, also speaks to how much agency a 2D digital map can have. Google was quick to rebuke the claim saying they never had a ‘Palestine’ label on their maps, and that a bug had removed the ‘West Bank’ and ‘Gaza Strip’ labels that were previously there.
Although Google Maps’ multiple faux pas may seem trivial, geospatial mapping still legitimizes – or delegitmizes – certain political realities. Google Maps, however, is not the only platform that fails at mapping Palestine; its navigational services in the West Bank and Gaza also fall short.
Waze, an Israeli crowd-sourced traffic and navigation app that allows users to notify drivers of police officers hiding in bushes or on side streets, does not offer its services in the West Bank and Gaza. Upon entering Areas A and B of the West Bank, which are administered in part by the Palestinian Authority (PA), Waze notifies drivers to proceed with caution before ceasing navigational services, which prevents Palestinians from using a platform like Waze. Israeli citizens are forbidden by law to visit the West Bank and Gaza, which may suggest why Waze doesn’t carry through with navigation into the West Bank.
When mapping tycoons such as Google or Waze fail to extend their services to certain parts of the world for fear of political backlash, open-source mapping rises as a viable alternative. Maps.me, previously known as MapWithMe, is an open-source mapping platform that provides offline maps, offline routes, and pinpoints things like schools, hospitals and more on a map. Data for the maps is collected through open-source databases like Open Source Maps and Wikipedia, where individuals can add information themselves.
A platform like Maps.me can be crucial for Palestinians who have limited access to data connectivity, making accessing online maps increasingly difficult. And although the PA is working to improve access to free Wi-Fi in the West Bank, not being included on the maps to begin with may suggest that the West Bank is non-navigational or suggest that it’s a no-go zone. Despite how important this recognition is to mapping Palestine and Palestinian narratives, it does not change many realities on the ground. Transport within the West Bank may say 15 minutes on Maps.me but could take up to 90 minutes because of Israeli checkpoints, as Wired iterated.
When asked about why they don’t provide navigational services in the West Bank and Gaza, the head of Google said to Wired that some areas are harder to map than others due a lack of quality data and lack of infrastructure on the ground. But even if platforms like Google and Waze were to map the West Bank and Gaza, which Google began doing as of last year, there are still a number of political connotations to how these platforms decide to represent Palestine on their maps.
Mapping as a (Political) Tool
As Christine Leuenberger described in her paper titled Mapping Israel/Palestine, maps can actually be used as rhetorical resources to make various social, cultural, and political claims. In the paper, she shows how media agencies across the board have repeatedly failed to correctly portray the Middle East in part for that reason. And while the Middle East remains more loosely defined than believed to be, these maps of the region are also inherently political. And with the introduction of digitized tools in mapping, maps have become more detailed and more visible in the public sphere.
Drawing (or nowadays designing) a map using digital technologies makes elements of mapping such as accuracy, aesthetics, and, more importantly, political connotation more dynamic. For well-known media agencies like CNN, The Guardian, or Fox News, maps of Palestine are more times than not drawn to be abstract, inaccurate, and reductive on purpose to avoid criticism. Leuenberger calls these maps ‘locator maps,’ which position cities, countries, or regions with little or no detail. These ‘locator’ maps, however, obscure the representation of Palestine and its accurate place on the map when their sole purpose is to arbitrarily place regions on a map.
When media agencies, researchers, or institutions align their maps of Palestine with those of their governments, it augments a certain narrative of history. Providing alternative representations of Palestine – either historical maps like the ones Palestine Open Maps has curated or Maps.me which maps Palestine today – suggests an alternative narrative of reality.
These same maps, that are often devoid of accurate or meaningful labels, are also made up of certain images and language. When these secondary elements aren’t used to extrapolate meaning, but instead faintly decorate a map, they are also misconstruing reality on the ground.
One of the most common examples of this is the language used to label the West Bank. The term some maps bear is ‘the Occupied Palestinian Territories’ or just ‘the Palestinian Territories.’ Other maps use ‘the West Bank’ while some may go so far as using the biblical name for the region ‘Judea and Sumeria.’ These wordings, albeit similar and all referencing the same area, have different political connotations to them which, when used as a label on a map, evoke certain meanings.
More often than not, Israeli settlements in the West Bank like Ariel or Modi’in, for example, are not referred to as settlements, but instead as “Jewish neighborhoods” or “disputed Jewish neighborhoods” despite their legal status as violating international law. Leuenberger emphasizes how this kind of rhetoric used in maps creates a representation of settlements that are incongruent with reality.
The most well-documented instance of these cartographic misrepresentations is the border delineation between Israel and the West Bank. More common representations of the border delineation on maps abide by the 1949 armistice line, known as the Green Line. When you search for the West Bank on Google Maps, the map shows a border drawn using a dotted line.
Maps that abide by the Green Line also do not take into consideration the number of Israeli settlements that are located within the West Bank that are, in fact, not under the PA’s authority. This means that even when the West Bank is drawn along the Green Line, it suggests the settlements are part of the land belonging to Palestinians when, in reality, that is not the case. Maps used by AlJazeera sometimes feature satellite imagery of Israel and Palestine to delineate Israeli-only roads linking Israeli settlements with Israel or other territorial demarcations.
Spatiality, Territoriality, and Maps
Mapping Palestine is not a linear process nor is it a one-stop-shop. With constantly changing political realities on the ground, maps of the contested region continue to change. GIS-spatial analytics and software company Esri emphasizes the importance of cartography and geospatial knowledge and says that, without maps, we would be “spatially blind.” The constant effort at mapping Palestine forges a link between histories, political realities, and geographical representations.
In this digital age, there remains a gap in understanding the significance of mapping and the reality on the ground – some researchers call this the urban-digital divide. The importance of mapping Palestine also lies in fighting to make a place for Palestine on the digital map. And as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict continues to rage on, maps, which can be static, mixed media (like AlJazeera’s Palestine Remix), or interactive, can help augment oral histories, memories, and the lives of Palestinians that are constantly coming under threat of erasure.