In August 2016, Google came under global scrutiny for its representation of Palestine following the removal of the terms “West Bank” and “Gaza” from its maps. Google responded by stating that the names were removed due a technical bug and additionally asserted that it had never previously named “Palestine” on its maps. Furthermore, some critics have pointed to Google Maps as perpetuating the Israeli government’s refusal to recognize Bedouin ownership over certain areas of the land by leaving out names of Palestinian villages as well as prioritizing illegal Israeli settlement routes on its map.

In a context where land and ownership are highly contentious and inherently political, Google holds immense power as the largest source of digital geographic data in the world, to shape and legitimize certain interpretations of the physical world and the politics that underpin it. As this report will show, because human rights extend into the digital sphere, the ways in which this physical world is represented in online maps can even run counter to the exercise of the most basic and essential human rights. This report analyses the mapping practices of Google Maps in relation to the occupied Palestinian territories and how that helps form public opinion that serves the interests of the Israeli government, while simultaneously contradicting Google's responsibilities under international human rights frameworks.

This will be done by firstly summarizing the geographical and political situation of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories and analyzing Palestinian villages and their representation on Google Maps, including Google’s route planning within these locations. Finally, the terminology that Google maps uses and its route planning in specific locations will be examined, before presenting conclusions and recommendations. The methodology used for this report is based on international human rights standards.

Despite countless attempts, a Google Maps representative could not be reached to comment on this issue. Although a few Google representatives initially agreed to answer questions about the issue, in the end, none of the persons at Google were actually available to comment.

Geopolitical Background

In this section, an outline of the following will be given: the terminology used when discussing the occupied Palestinian territories, the territorial division and fragmentation of historical Palestine and its repercussions on Palestinian human rights, and the movement restrictions for Palestinians residing in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel geographically exists within the internationally recognized Green Line and excludes East Jerusalem. Palestine consists of the two geographically separate territories Gaza and West Bank (which includes illegally annexed East Jerusalem). The West Bank is further divided into Areas A, B and C. Officially, Area A is under control of the Palestinian Authority, Area C is under Israeli military control, and Area B is under Israeli security and Palestinian civil control. In Area C, 150 settlements have been established as of 2016, which are deemed illegal under Art. 49(6) of the IV Geneva Convention prohibiting “[t]he Occupying Power [from] deport[ing] or transfer[ing] its own civilian population into the territory it occupies” (Art. 49, IV Geneva Convention 1949). Such settlements are also in breach of Article 55 of the Hague Regulations, which state the obligation of the occupying power to safeguard occupied properties and maintain the status quo (Art. 55 Hague Regulations 1907). This internal fragmentation of the West Bank, which was intended to be temporary under the 1995 Oslo Interim Agreement, creates a system of movement restrictions enforced on Palestinians, as visually represented by UNOCHA’s interactive map of the occupied Palestinian territories. These movement restrictions directly violate the universal right to ‘freedom of movement’ as stated in Article 13 of the Human Rights Charter. The ramifications of such restrictions include inadequate access to essential services and diminished economic activity. For example, in order to travel between different locations within Area A, it is necessary to pass through Area C or at least one checkpoint (Zahriyeh 2014). This is because Areas A and B are formed by numerous ‘islands’ within Area C. This fragmentation is further reflected in the colour-coded ID system enforced by the Israeli administration throughout all of Israel and the Palestinian territories. The colour and type of the ID determines the scale of movement restrictions and the legal jurisdiction that differs between ID types. Palestinians and Israelis residing within Israel have a blue Israeli ID, which allows movement throughout Israel and Area C of the West Bank. Although the same rules apply for Palestinians living in Jerusalem, they hold a specific Jerusalem ID that grants them ‘permission’ to reside there. This can be easily revoked by Israeli authorities. Palestinians in Gaza or the West Bank hold a green ID which allows movement only within the territory they live in. Permits are required to access other areas of the occupied territories or Israel. The two ID systems have the following dimensions: blue ID holders exist under Israeli civil law, in which they are considered innocent until proven guilty. Green ID holders are subject to Israeli military legislation, and are considered guilty unless they can prove otherwise (Alsaafin 2017). In the military court system, over 99% of cases are convicted (Military Court Watch 2016).

Image: Oslo Agreement - UNOCHA, 2005