Guardian writer claims Google excluding Palestine to please customers.

Written by Richard Millett


The Guardian’s weapon of choice on Monday against the Jewish state was maps with Petter Hellström, a PhD candidate at the Department of History of Science and Ideas, Uppsala University, claiming, in the Science section, that Google “chose not to mark Palestine on their maps…to stay impartial in the eyes of customers and the surrounding society…their fellow westerners.”

Once again this article would have been more at home in the opinion section.

Hellström complains that Google’s Map of Israel shows Israeli population centre Ma’ale Adumin on the West Bank but “not even major (Palestinian) ones like Gaza City, Khan Yunis or Nablus”.

He then reproduces two maps of North America from 1614 and 1729 which he claims “made the colonists visible at the expense of the indigenous population” and which he calls “instruments of colonial legitimisation”, the obvious inference being that Google is doing the same to the Palestinians.

He also reproduces an Israeli government map which doesn’t delineate the West Bank and Gaza as separate from Israel while accepting that the Palestinians do the same with their maps but giving the Palestinian action a more innocent gloss:

“Palestinian maps often label the whole country as Palestine – effectively a refusal to acknowledge the development since 1948.”

Hellström then invokes anti-Zionist Israeli historian Meron Benvenisti who “described the process with which the Israeli state Hebraized the place-names of the country they had conquered”.

Hellström quotes Benvenisti:

“The Hebrew map of Israel constitutes one stratum in my consciousness, underlaid by the stratum of the previous Arab map.”

Hellström also invokes that ambiguous 173 year old phrase originated by Christian evangelicals a land without a people for a people without a land” but which Hellström attributes more directly to “the architects of Israel.” The phrase is now commonly employed as an epithet against Israel’s supporters.

Hellström took his cue from the Forum of Palestinian Journalists when they “accused Google of removing Palestine from their maps.”

His main concern is “whether Palestine and its people exist at all” and is under the impression that there was once a country called Palestine because “It is there on old paper maps, of the Holy Land, of the Roman and Ottoman empires, of the British mandate.”

But it was the “British Mandate for Palestine”, merely an administrative name. And on Ottoman maps Palestine was subsumed as a part of southern Syria.

Meanwhile, Palestine’s current status is as a UN non-member observer state having failed to join the international body as a full member state.

Irrespective of all the above I was bemused anyway because when you play around with Google maps of Israel and Palestine and zoom in closer than Palestinian population centres do appear.

Furthermore, Google’s map for Palestine has a sidebar showing Wikipedia’s definition of Palestine’s current UN status. Google, itself, even puts Palestine’s capital at “East Jerusalem” instead of the, arguably, more accurate Ramallah.

Here’s the link to Google’s map of Palestine:

I wrote to Hellström for clarification of his criticism. His response (which I publish in full below at his request if I was going to quote from it) was that Israeli population centres are disproportionately represented, that the Google sidebar is, depending on your device and settings, not necessarily always available, and that the content of Wikipedia is not stable.

He has a point to the extent that Google’s map of Palestine isn’t labelled. There is an argument that it could be labelled “Palestinian territories” or, “administered Palestinian territories” with delineated Areas A, B and C or, even, “non-member observer state”. Some might prefer “Judea and Samaria”.

It would just be inaccurate to refer to it as Palestine.

Hellström’s article could, quite validly, have gone down this road of discussion, but by directly implicating Israel and its creation in all this and suggesting that Google might have some financial agenda is to go down a far more sinister route. 

Petter Hellström’s response to my email (23rd August 2016):

Dear Richard,

Many thanks for your e-mail. I am only happy to clarify what I wanted to say in the article; the short online format is not always helpful to give full disclosure of an argument.

First, it is not my main contention that the name of Palestine is absent from Google Maps. My argument is rather that this absence – like the relative absence of Palestinian place names – is significant, that it can tell us something, and that it matters.

If you search for Israel on Google Maps, the map centres on the State of Israel. It displays Israeli place-names, both in Israel proper and on the West Bank (Ma’ale Adumin), but no Palestinian place names, even as several Palestinian urban centres are significantly larger than the Israeli urban centres labelled (most striking is the labelling of Yotvata, pop. 700,while Gaza City, pop. 515,556, is not labelled; but even on the Palestinian territories there is a preference for Israeli urban centres, since only Ma’ale Adumin is labelled on the West Bank, although significantly smaller than several of the adjacent Palestinian urban centres). Since 19 August, in response to criticism, Google Maps also labels the Gaza Strip and the West Bank (even as it is not clear what status they enjoy). As you zoom in on the region, Palestinian place names start to appear along more Israeli place names. However, their respective representation is still disproportionate (Israeli urban centres show up at a much lower resolution than Palestinian urban centres of comparable size).

Now, if you search for Palestine on Google Maps, as you did, the map centres instead on the West Bank (you are in fact shown the same map image as if you searched for the West Bank). This map image is consequently of higher resolution, and thus more place names are shown, both in Israel and on the Palestinian territories. Their disproportionate representation is still apparent (the map image is, in fact, the same as the one you get if you first search for Israel, zoom in, and move the centre from Israel proper to the West Bank).

The Google Maps interface sometimes shows – depending on your settings and your device – a sidebar with a link to Wikipedia. It is Wikipedia, not Google Maps, that describes Palestine as ”a de jure sovereign state in the Middle East that is recognized by 136 UN members and since 2012 has a status of a non-member observer state” and which states East Jerusalem as its capital. The content of Wikipedia is not stable but changing depending on contributors. As far as I know, Google exerts no power over it, they merely provide the link. If you search for Jerusalem on Google Maps, it is clearly stated as located in Israel, not as in Israel and in Palestine.

In conclusion, Google Maps shows Israel but not Palestine, although both are states recognised by the UN as well as by most of the world’s independent states (Palestine is presently recognised by 136 and Israel by 161 UN member states). Moreover, and importantly, Google Maps shows Israeli presence in Israel and the Palestinian territories disproportionately more than it represents Palestinian presence.

Having said all this, it was not the purpose of my article to pass judgment on Google or to suggest how they should produce their maps in the future. Others are more willing to do this. My objective was rather to say that Palestine’s absence on Google Maps, like the relative absence of Palestinians, has precedents in the history of cartography; my example was New England, both because I thought it would speak to an Anglophone and predominantly British and American audience, but also because Harley made his argument about New England in reference to Israeli policies). My objective was also to say that history shows us that cartographic omission matters, especially when a state or country is in military occupation of another people, whose lands it is confiscating.

I hope this clarifies my argument. Again I thank you for your polite e-mail.

If you publish my reply on your blog or in any other forum, I would appreciate that you publish it in its entirety, rather than using only parts of it.

Best regards,

Petter Hellström

12 replies »

  1. “anti-Zionist Israeli historian Meron Benvenisti”

    Meron Benvenisti supports the two-state solution. Since when does Zionism officially support the subjugation of and discrimination against the Palestinians? There have always been disagreements surrounding Zionism, going back to the First Zionist Conference organized by Herzl. Nobody has a monopoly. Despite the excellent work that Richard Millet does, he lives in England and does not have the right to decide that Benvenisti or any other Israeli is “anti-Zionist”.

    • Newsflash: Richard does not need your permission to call anyone anything he bloody well chooses to.
      Now crawl back under your slimy rock, cretin.

      • Thanks, and one shouldn’t necessarily trust wikipedia i know, but it says of him that he’s “an advocate of the idea of a binational state.”

        • Maybe he wrote that himself, like Johann Hari.
          The man doesn’t even seem to realise what a historical and social and moral ignoramus he is.

    • “Since when does Zionism officially support the subjugation of and discrimination against the Palestinians?”

      Since the moment assholes like you say it does. In other words, there has “always been disagreements about Zionism” because there are always people (i.e. assholes) who insist Israel has no right to exist.

      But, yes, why be so uncouth. Well, it has something to do with your inherent racist inability to grasp the meaning of Jewish self-determination. So there’s that.

  2. Guardian provides platform for Islamofascists and Fascist Socialists to please customers.

    Mount a boycott, a BDS of companies that advertise in Der Guardian

  3. A few question for the PhD candidate:
    Why not do some scholarly work instead of this?

    Are there other areas in the world not given their due on Google maps? Why do you have such a disproportionate interest in the non-state, “Palestine?”

    “If you search for Israel on Google Maps, the map centers on the State of Israel.”

    You don’t say? How odd, and, duh !

    I’m loathe to tell you this, but maps that focus in on a specific subject and not being detailed about those things surrounding that subject is not actually unusual. I’ve seen many such maps, including state road maps here in the US.

    “Hellström then invokes anti-Zionist Israeli historian Meron Benvenisti who “described the process with which the Israeli state Hebraized the place-names of the country they had conquered”.”
    You do realize that Hebrew place names existed long before Arab place names, don’t you? Yet you don’t mention it. It’s as if you are erasing Jewish history from the land of the Jews, no? It makes it seem to the casual reader, (no readers being more intellectually casual than Guardianistas), that Arab place names preceded Hebrew place names, even though Hebrew is an indigenous language whereas “Palestinian” (Arabic) is not. Someone who knows the history might be inclined to think you are making excuses for the imperial and colonialist history of the Arabs, which is a bit strange since denouncing imperialism and colonialism is so in fashion these days, especially on the continent. Hmm, let’s think of what else is in fashion these days that could explain this.

    And after you’ve thought about that for a while please do tell us what such names as “Nablus,” mean in “Palestinian.”

    I believe you have an “Israel” problem.

    BTW, there’s no problem with “Palestinian” and other Arab maps of “Palestine.” They simply erase Israel entirely. Of course, they tried several times to do it for real. At least they have their maps, eh?

    • Great post! Of COURSE Hellstrom has an ‘Israel’ problem. He’s Swedish, right? Not sure how many Jews are left in Uppsala, but Malmo is Judenfrei. Maybe he should concentrate on doing his degree in asking where all the Swedish Jews have disappeared to?