The so-called Israeli-Palestinian “conflict” is - as is the case for other forms of occupation and apartheid throughout history - in many ways, a conflict in cartography, one that plays out in, and perhaps even originates from, maps. The Israeli apartheid - which is the reality looming behind the euphemism in the word “conflict” - feeds on land as much as it does people, and if there’s anything that years of war have shown, it’s that the lines separating a land and its people can be blurry for an apartheid that does not differentiate between either.
Those blurred lines constitute part of the reason that Palestinians have for years fought to preserve their historic map. And in the post-digital era, more and more of them are using the tools of the digital realm to archive, recreate and document it. While Google Maps - the single largest and most used maps app in the world - does not recognise Palestine, and forcibly directs Palestinians towards routes that trail through Israeli settlements, hence endangering them and complying with the Israeli government’s discriminatory policies, other activists, entrepreneurs, and cartographers are creating alternatives.
Trump's "Middle East peace plan" largely bases itself on the reconstitution of the historic map of Palestine, and granting Israel sovereignty over Palestinian territory. This map shows precisely, in borders, how the historic map of Palestine has been altered throughout the duration of the Israeli occupation, with the last one showing yet another sacrifice in land that the projected plan demands of Palestine. Photo courtesy of Majid Nawaz.
The British Mandate Era maps of Palestine are some of the only clear, well-documented, and archived maps that still exist today of the country before the Israeli occupation. Although, ironically, the maps were created for the divide-and-conquer agenda that triggered the entire occupation, they now provide one of the bases of Palestine’s rights of return case. The online initiatives cited above are making use of those maps - in many ways, reclaiming them from the many colonial hands that first handled it - and archived footage, photographs and even oral histories to keep Palestine alive.
In light of Israeli Apartheid Week, from March 16th to 21st, and Trump’s recent slap in the face of an “Israeli-Palestinian peace plan”, which allows Israeli sovereignty over Palestinian land, these initiatives are more relevant and more important than ever. Be it a homegrown maps app that - besides naming Palestinian villages, cities and towns by their actual names - detects Israeli checkpoints and suggests safe and secure routes to Palestinians, or an immersive, 360-degree map that both shows and tells the history of Palestine - before, during and after apartheid - these 6 online mapping initiatives are doing more than just preserving a map - they’re mapping apartheid, and protecting Palestinian history, culture and ultimately, life.
1. Palestine Open Maps
Palestine Open Maps is an open-source platform that uses British mandate-era maps, adapting them to modern technologies to create an immersive storytelling experience that relays the history of erasure of Palestinian villages. The platform was developed in 2018 as a collaboration between Visualizing Palestine, a Palestinian digital-based initiative using research and design to build a factual case against Israeli narratives of apartheid and occupation, and Columbia University Studio X Amman.
To date, it provides some of the most high resolution images of pre-Nakba Palestine in the world - the product of a team’s work, knitting together more than 200 map sheets in order to convert them digitally into interactive, high resolution images. The maps show and present basic data for every village, city, and town in Palestine that existed before the Nakba in 1948, including whether or not it still exists, the exact date it was depopulated, and the predominant population group that resided there at the time. “Putting the villages on screen that were destroyed, depopulated, and built over in the form of these maps makes what happened irrefutable,” explained Beirut-based architect Ahmad Barclay to CityLab, explaining the relevance and importance of open-sourcing the maps. You can access the online platform here.
iNakba is one of the earliest projects of its kind, and for that reason, it caused the most uproar since its launch in 2014. Developed by Zochrot, one of the most prominent Israeli NGOs promoting Palestinian rights and raising awareness on the injustices of the Nakba, the app documents the destruction of Palestinian villages by showing the exact coordinates of each village, accompanied with historical information and photos and videos provided by the users, who are often Palestinians themselves, using their phones to capture the contemporary realities of Palestine. When it first launched, the app received a huge amount of backlash, as expected, accusing the creators of the app of deepening the divide between Israelis and Palestinians - an argument, of course, refuted by the mere success of the app that keeps it functioning to this day, engaging thousands in a practice of reclaiming history and memory, with the help of technology. You can find and download the app from here.
3. Doroob App
Doroob diverts from others on this list slightly by virtue of it being, not particularly an initiative to map apartheid, but one that actively, on a daily basis, offers an alternative map to be used primarily for navigational purposes - while also making a point of offering the original names of streets, villages, and occupied locations. Essentially a maps app and an alternative to the infamously complicit Google Maps, Doroob App launched last year in Ramallah to immense success. The app provides routes to travellers that avoid Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank and occupied cities using crowd-sourced data from travellers about road closures and traffic. The app was developed “by Palestinians, for Palestinians” and the startup is currently helmed by CEO and founder Mohammad Abdel Haleem. You can find and download the app from here.
4. Palestine Land Society’s Plan for Return
Non-profit scholarly collective Palestine Land Society has compiled research for years on the history and geography of Palestine, and that research has culminated in the development of a comprehensive plan for return using maps, in a storytelling fashion, to highlight, visually, the occupation since its beginnings through the lens of tracking displaced Palestinian populations. The mapped plan shows that until today, many of the depopulated cities have not been repopulated and can actually provide space for the families of Palestinians who were displaced decades ago. You can find the archive here.
5. The Gaza Platform
This interactive map zooms in on the 2014 Israeli attacks on Gaza, providing data on almost every bombing - as relatively miniature as a missile going off on a street but wounding no one, to the bombing and destruction of an entire tunnel leading to tens of deaths - that took place during the brutal attack. Divided into categories ranging from military to residential areas, and religious landmarks to groups of people, the map records 2,750 individual events, and the deaths of more than 2,200 people, while providing the exact date and timing of each event and enabling you to locate where it happened on the map. The platform was constructed in collaboration with the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), and Amnesty International. You can visit The Gaza Platform here.
6. Palestine Remembered
This digital repository of maps contains some of the most rare documents from different periods of time, many in both English and Arabic. The archive holds a very diverse collection of original maps that can be used by academics and researchers - and served as an important resource for many of the more tech advanced initiatives listed above. You can access the archive here.