The influence of the Internet on our lives is increasing. The online world allows the creation of a virtual reality that at times bears only passing resemblance to facts on the ground.
The gap between reality and virtual reality is further exploited by political activists promoting what we term "replacement geography," a means of controlling the virtual representation of land in place of controlling the land itself. In an information age, control on the common map may be worth more in negotiations than control on the ground.
With a user base of 400 million visitors, Google Earth uses satellite imagery combined with maps, terrain and 3D buildings to present the earth at various levels of magnification. Key features (geography, place details, pictures, etc.) are included with the download of Google Earth in what is known as a "core layer."
Google Earth has been used by campaign groups to raise public awareness. Examples include grass-roots environmental campaigns and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which created a layer with information on the crisis in Darfur.
Yet Israel, as represented by Google Earth, is littered with dozens of orange dots. Orange dots represent contributions from the user community, and those appearing by default have been accepted into the core layout by Google Earth. In the case of Israel, most of these dots claim to represent "one of the Palestinian localities evacuated and destroyed after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war."
For example, Ramat Aviv, the site of Tel Aviv University, appears as Al Shaykh Muwannis. While generally, Google Earth does not erase Israeli towns and kibbutzim, it has heavily integrated a politically motivated Palestinian narrative into the map of Israel. As a result, Israel is depicted as a state born out of colonial conquest, rather than the return of a people from exile. Each orange dot links to the "Palestine Remembered" site, where custom layers that further advance this narrative can be obtained.
Yet research showed that many of the claims staked out in Google Earth were presenting misinformation. Kiryat Yam was wrongly claimed to be built on the Palestinian village of Ghawarina. Many sites known to be ruins in 1946 are claimed to be villages destroyed in 1948. Arab villages that still exist today are listed as sites of destruction. The Google Earth initiative is not only creating a virtual Palestine, it is creating a falsification of history.
Google Earth's core information also includes other problems. Previously, areas beyond the "green line" were labeled as "Occupied Territories," a phraseology that's sometimes used to justify terrorism, rather than "disputed territories." The area listed as "occupied" also included the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
In March, the Gaza Strip was still listed as "Israeli-occupied," despite Israel's full withdrawal in 2005 and the military takeover of the strip by Hamas in mid-2007. By May, after press coverage, the label was changed to read "Gaza Strip." A note states: "Many sources still regard the Gaza Strip as 'Israeli-occupied' despite formal Israeli withdrawal in September 2005."
There is still no mention of Hamas' control.
"Replacement geography" builds on the concept of "replacement theology," a position that spurred anti-Semitism within the church and which, starting with Vatican II, has been removed from Christian doctrine. Indeed, it has been stated that recognition of the State of Israel by the Vatican completed this process. Replacement theology stated that Christians had inherited the covenant and replaced the Jews as the chosen people. The concept of replacement geography similarly replaces the historical connection of one people to the land with a connection between another people and the land.
This was famously applied by the Romans when they renamed Judea to Palaestinia, and Jerusalem to Aelia Capitolina in 135 C.E. in an effort to destroy the Jewish people after the Bar Kochba revolt. In more recent times, replacement geography has resulted in the destruction of Jewish artifacts at the Temple Mount.
The inclusion of virtual Palestine — superimposed on Israel in the core layer of Google Earth — is an example of replacement geography advanced by technology. Those wishing to find directions, explore the cities of Israel or randomly wander across this small piece of land are immediately taken to a politically motivated narrative unrelated to their quest. This is the sort of replacement the ancient Romans tried and failed to achieve.
The "core layer" of Google Earth should be ideology-free — and not serve as a platform for indoctrination or a campaign to wipe Israel off the virtual map.
Andre Oboler is a a Legacy Heritage Fellow at NGO Monitor in Jerusalem.