Google Explains Why Palestine Isn’t Labeled In Maps


Supporters of the Palestinian cause denounced Google online this week for removing the word “Palestine” from Google Maps.

Services like Google Maps have not just functional but symbolic importance, as a bug on a map of Israel has proved. A Gaza City journalism group spotted a change in the way Google represented Palestine on a map of Israel, causing outrage on both mainstream and social media in the Middle East.

“[Our group] condemns the crime carried out by Google in deleting the name of Palestine, and calls for Google to rescind its decision and apologize to the Palestinian people,” the Forum of Palestinian Journalists said in a statement.

Much of the Middle-Eastern media, along with Twitter and Facebook users, are demanding that Google relabel the region, or even all of Israel, as “Palestine.” However, the Maps app never had that label in the first place, and Google tells Engadget that a glitch is to blame for the change. “There has never been a ‘Palestine’ label on Google Maps, however we discovered a bug that removed the labels for ‘West Bank’ and ‘Gaza Strip.’ We’re working quickly to bring these labels back to the area,” a spokesperson says.

Google shows a dashed border around West Bank and Gaza, and defines cities in those regions as Palestinian if you click on them. A Wikipedia knowledge box on Maps describes Palestine as a “de jure sovereign state,” a term selected by the United Nations in 2013.

The outcry may be misplaced, but the incident shows the care that companies like Google, Apple and Microsoft must take with how they represent regions. That applies particularly in politically sensitive regions, where people see maps as a lot more than just a collection of data points.An online petition from March condemning Google (and insinuating its “two Jewish founders” removed the word “Palestine” because of their alleged ties to Israel) had collected more than 280,000 signatures by Wednesday, more than 180,000 of those since the day before.

Elizabeth Davidoff, a spokeswoman, said in an email that the company had also never used the label “Palestinian territories” on its maps. The bug affecting the words “Gaza Strip” and “West Bank” persisted on Wednesday, but when Google Maps functions properly both areas are labeled and separated from Israel by a dotted line to signify that their borders are not internationally recognized.

The word “Palestine” was recently removed from the local home page of the company’s search engine, but the reason was aesthetic, not political, Ms. Davidoff said. It was taken down to make space for an Olympics-themed Google doodle, a design that sometimes greets users, as were country-specific tag lines for every country in the world.

“There’s no Google-wide effort to remove Palestine or anything like that,” Ms. Davidoff said in an email. She said a GIF circulating online (and shared by the activist group Jewish Voice for Peace) that claimed to show a before-and-after image that proved the alleged deletion, was fake.