A good way to grasp what’s happening to East Jerusalem and the Occupied Territories is from the air. Google Earth can do that for you, but there’s a history of contention: in 2006, users created tags for Palestinian villages that were destroyed during the war of 1948-49; the following year Fatah’s al-Aqsa Brigades were said to be checking potential Israeli military targets against Google Earth pictures; last year there was a controversy over the Israeli coastal town of Kiryat Yam, when a user called Thameen Darby posted a note claiming it was formerly a Palestinian locality ‘evacuated and destroyed after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war’. Kiryat Yam, its residents protested as they reached for the nearest lawyer, was built in the 1930s.
A common objection to the tagging of villages emptied or razed during the nakba is that living memory, along with other kinds of record, doesn’t always get it right: several villages identified as casualties of the war were already uninhabited before 1948. A bigger gripe, voiced by André Oboler last year in Jerusalem Issue Briefs, was that user contributions, mostly from Palestinians, have been incorporated into Google Earth’s ‘core layout’, meaning that visitors ‘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’. By contrast, the WWF’s material on deforestation and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s information on Darfur are ‘custom’ layers. You really have to want to go there.
Sooner or later, if this were to continue, Google Earth would become a virtual dogfight over every disputed area of the planet, from Western Sahara to the East China Sea – or that’s the Oboler argument. At the same time, the web is one of the few places where Palestinians, losing ground by the day to the realities of occupation and settlement, can make their aspirations plain. (And put the modest query: is there any such thing as a non-‘politically-motivated’ map of Israel and Palestine?) Only not on Google Earth – or not any more. At a glance it looks as though Google have taken Oboler’s objections seriously and changed the core layer.
Palestinians are not forgiven for demonstrating or resorting to violence, and it’s no surprise to find them taken to task when they defend their dwindling lands to the best of their abilities on the internet – especially on Google Earth, which gave them a rare promontory in the war of position from which they could look down at the scale of their dispossession and chart it, for others to grasp.
In the non-virtual space of the West Bank, this kind of viewpoint is seldom available to Palestinians, because Israel has grabbed the high ground and dug into it, changing the skyline and calling the shots. Last week the Palfest contingent set out for the remains of the countryside around Ramallah with Raja Shehadeh, the author of Palestinian Walks: it took a bus ride and a descent on foot between two terraced slopes before we had a glimpse of a landscape without an Israeli settlement shimmering above it. The security towers along the wall bid for height and vantage in the same way. You can’t be in the territories without feeling overawed and observed – some distance, in other words, from Fanon’s sense that the colonised are largely ‘invisible’, ignored and unexamined by the coloniser. To be on the West Bank is to feel like a walking X-ray or a tagged convict, monitored in high places.
This two-tier geography, with the occupiers raised above the occupied, has some startling applications. During the 39-day siege of the Church of the Nativity in 2002, the Israeli army put a remote-controlled sniper rifle at the top of a crane in Manger Square: facts in the air, as the people of Gaza know, can be as vivid as facts on the ground. Nowadays in Hebron, as you walk through the market in the old town, you move under long strips of mesh strung across the street by Palestinians to protect them against the rubbish, stones and bottles thrown by the settlers who live above. You’re encouraged to move quickly even so – the nets are no good against urine or bleach. The market in Hebron is not the bustling place it used to be. The settlers have done for it, just as the occupation has done for so much of Palestine. That’s the idea of staying on top.