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Activists: Google, Apple ‘Erasing Palestine’ from Geographic Apps

Cyber-activist accuses US, Israeli governments of being behind efforts to ‘remove Palestinians from map of future’

A campaign launched by an Instagram account called “Astagfirvlah,” also spelled “Astagfirollah,” accuses Google and Apple of “officially removing” Palestine from their maps.

Wednesday’s Instagram post sparked widespread criticism on social media, accusing both companies of trying to obliterate the Palestinian identity and change facts to satisfy American and Israeli goals.

Tweets emerged. One said: “Today #Israel came to cancel the annexation of #Palestine?! Today is also the same day #Applemaps and #GoogleMaps removed #Palestine from there worldwide maps?! I stand with you forever and always!! #FreePalestine!!! Please speak up!! And share!! #istandforjustice.”

Others said: “As you can see, @Google removed ‘Palestine’ from its maps” and “Removing #Palestine from the map doesn’t mean it ceases to exist. #PalestineIsHere.”

Eyad Rifai, head of Sada Social Center, which monitors social media violations against Palestinian content, affirmed to The Media Line that Palestine was not identified as such on these maps, but rather as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

He added that since the beginning of 2020, Google had begun to remove the names of Palestinian cities and roads from its maps while keeping Israeli roads – which put Palestinians in danger if they followed directions based on the maps and ended up in an Israeli settlement.

“We have been working and sending letters to several parties to include Palestine in accordance with the laws of the United Nations,” Rifai stated.

We have been working and sending letters to several parties to include Palestine in accordance with the laws of the United Nations

“After the announcement of the so-called deal of the century [in January 2020] as well as the [subsequent] Israeli plan to annex parts of the West Bank,” he continued, referencing the Trump Administration’s Mideast peace plan, “activists started highlighting such issues of not recognizing Palestine as a country on official maps by Google and others.”

Google’s Press Department did not respond to The Media Line’s request for comment.

Rifai maintains that Palestinian digital rights are being violated by several online platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram.

“We approach these platforms with official letters, as we know they don’t take these measures on their own, but rather because of requests from certain governments, such as the government of Israel and the American administration, who aim to restrict Palestinian activity on these sites for various reasons,” he said.

Palestinian campaigns are highlighting Israeli “violations” against Palestinians, “which also reveals the crimes of the Israeli occupation to the international community, given the easy access through these platforms to the outside world, unlike with traditional means of communication,” Rifai added.

Palestinian posts and campaigns on social media have helped mobilize international opinion, which, he says, has been a major reason for targeting the Palestinian content.

“Facebook has developed an algorithm that automatically deletes users’ posts and accounts if they include names of Palestinian political parties, for example ‘Hamas,’ ‘Jihad,’ ‘Popular Front,’ ‘Qassam,’ ‘Saraya’ and ‘Islamic Jihad,’ or names of martyrs, leaders and others, without looking at the context in which they were posted, which sets a historic precedent for infringement on media freedom,” Rifai charged.

Such measures serve to obscure the Palestinian identity and “remove it from the map of the future,” he says.

“Basically, such issues erase the digital activities accumulated over the years on Palestinian affairs – for instance, students in the future won’t be able to find ‘Palestine’ or Palestinian content when they search online,” he noted.

Basically, such issues erase the digital activities accumulated over the years on Palestinian affairs – for instance, students in the future won’t be able to find ‘Palestine’ or Palestinian content when they search online

Rifai says the Sada Center has sent letters to Google, but it has not responded.

“But we work with international institutions that defend digital rights, and we are having intensive meetings in the coming days on this issue,” he noted.

Last year, Palestinian activists launched a campaign against alleged violations of user freedoms by social media platforms. They called to highlight the threat posed by Facebook against Palestinian content and reveal what they called a double-standard by the firm’s management when dealing with Israeli and Palestinian incitement.

Palestinian journalists and media professionals say they are unable to carry out their work because of Facebook’s “unfair policy,” which fails to meet professional standards and puts the Palestinian narrative in real danger.

Jalal Abukhater, a Palestinian activist with more than 5,000 followers on Twitter, told The Media Line that “Palestine” was never denoted on any of Google’s or Apple’s map platforms.

“The territories have always [shown] the ‘West Bank’ and ‘Gaza Strip’ labels. I saw many of my friends reposting the news, but I never saw ‘Palestine’ on official maps by Google and Apple,” he said.

Abukhater believes people should stop waiting for major technology companies to legitimize the Palestinian existence.

“[We have to] delegitimize their role in this,” he stated.

He cites a recent incident when Instagram deleted a photo shared by American model Bella Hadid of her father’s US passport, which listed his birthplace as Palestine. Instagram said it violated community guidelines on harassment or bullying and noted that the platform did not allow hate speech.

“Are we not allowed to be Palestinian on Instagram?” Hadid wrote. “This, to me, is bullying. You can’t erase history by silencing people.”

Are we not allowed to be Palestinian on Instagram? This, to me, is bullying. You can’t erase history by silencing people

According to Facebook, which owns Instagram, the post’s removal had nothing to do with Palestine. Rather, “the platform doesn’t allow people to put personal information online.”

As the passport’s number was blurred out, Instagram eventually acknowledged that the post had mistakenly been deleted.

Abukhater says that such censorship, whether by mistake or not, is the real danger.

“We all know about and have proof of the coordinated effort by Facebook and other major tech to stifle/censor any/all discourse on Palestine,” he wrote.

He added that routinely, such behavior reflects the American policy that does not recognize Palestine as a state, “and all of these companies are based in the US; therefore they will act according to the US foreign policy regarding such things.”

Samer Ali, director of foreign relations at the Palestinian Authority’s Telecom and Information Technology Ministry, told The Media Line there were continuous attempts in the virtual sphere to obscure the identity of the Palestinian state, and that most of these measures were justified by the platforms as technical issues divorced from political dimensions.

“At the end of the day, what most of these companies and platforms care about is the business angle, and if they don’t follow a certain line, they become subject to defamation [by Israeli organizations] that affect their work,” he said.

Ali claims that any Palestinian campaign in the virtual world to publicize violations of the Israeli occupation are met with restrictions.

“As a ministry, we advocate against these measures to international associations and also to friendly countries, and we report and send letters regarding any unfair practices to alert people on the issue, in addition to highlighting these issues in our international meetings and conferences,” he said.