It started as a random search. We thought we'd look up "Jenin Refugee Camp" on Google Maps to see if we could figure out when the satellite photograph was taken, based on the visible evidence of the rebuilding of the camp after the 2002 Israeli invasion.
Problem is, "Jenin Refugee Camp" doesn't return a search result in its actual place in the north of the West Bank. Fair enough, maybe Google doesn't do refugee camps. So we tried simply "Jenin" in Google Maps. Jenin is the fifth-largest Palestinian city in the West Bank. We should get that much from Google. But here's what we got:
, Czech Republic.
At least, that is the first search return. The second is Jenin, Poland. And the third and final search result is a partly cloudy place called נין Israel.
Funny how that works. The Czech and Polish versions of Jenin are by all evidence just small towns. Palestinian Jenin is large enough to have been granted "Area A" status - or Palestinian Authority rule - under the Oslo interim agreements of the 1990s. And for that reason, too, one would be hard pressed to say Jenin is in "Israel." It's in the "West Bank," or "Palestine," or "the occupied territories." Pick your term. But Israel?
Now here's what you're all wondering - what happens when you enter the search in Arabic? جنين
You get a place that is transliterated as "Janine" - a very small town in northern Lebanon. Hmm, at this point, we're starting to feel extra sleuthy for a Saturday.
So we look up other major Palestinian place names and see where they fall, nomenclaturally speaking.
"Ramallah" is in the "West Bank," according to Google. That was easy. Ramallah is the unofficial capital of the West Bank, without much specific historical claim by Israel, Israelis, or Israelites.
What about Bethlehem - birthplace of that famous guy, now practically a suburb of Jerusalem, but nevertheless a Palestinian city under nominal PA control? According to Google Maps "Bethlehem" is in Israel whether you enter it in English or in Hebrew - . But enter Bethlehem under its Arabic name - بيت لحم - and all of a sudden Bethlehem is in the "West Bank."
And Jericho? Is Jericho in the West Bank? Or is it in Israel? Or is it in New York (which is what comes up when you type in the Arabic name أريحا.
And Hebron? In ِArabic, it's in the "West Bank." In Hebrew, it's in "Israel." In English, it could be "Israel" or the "West Bank"!!
But then there's Nablus - historically important Palestinian city, trade crossroads, famous for its olive oil soap, population 150,000 or so. In Google Maps, Nablus is in Israel only - as of course - important historically to Jews as the site of Joseph's Tomb. Nablus doesn't come up West Bank at all. Google can't quite place its Arabic name correctly.
All this is frighteningly perplexing, especially for an enterprise that is supposed to untangle the World Wide Web for the lay surfer.
Now wait, what about Gaza, you say? Remember the disengagement? Google doesn't, or else they haven't figured out the taxonomy yet. Gaza, apparently, is also in Israel. Wha-?
And even in Arabic - غزة - the search result also says Israel. The optimist says, maybe Google has left "Israel" in place because the Israeli occupation hasn't ended. Maybe not.
So what does this all mean? Well, for one thing, Google is probably using Israeli cartographic and toponymic data to generate its maps. For another, Google is probably trying to steer clear of politics - which is nearly impossible when it comes to projecting maps, certainly in the Middle East - by avoiding the term "Palestine." But in doing so, Google feeds the monster of conspiracy. It's probably not a conspiracy - to keep certain Palestinian cities and towns in the West Bank (and Gaza!) above the rubric "Israel" - but let's just say the evidence does not look good.
After all, when you Google Map "Palestine," you get Texas.