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Erasing Palestine From the Map


A foreign affairs blogger for The Washington Post recently posted “40 Maps that explain the world.”  Some of the maps are important (“Economic inequality around the world”), some are interesting (“Meet the world’s 26 remaining monarchies”), but others grossly distort the reality they purportedly represent.  Chief among this latter category is “How far Hamas’s rockets can reach into Israel” .


All about Hamas’s rockets

There are two principal problems with this map.  First, the map attempts to “explain” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by pointing exclusively to the capacity of Hamas’s rockets to reach ever-extensive points within Israel.  Four color-coded, concentric semi-circles spread out from the Gaza Strip, each showing the distance different rockets could travel, the furthest making it all the way to the Dead Sea.  Max Fisher, the Post’s chief foreign affairs blogger, writes in a caption to the map, “This helps drive home why Israel is so concerned about Hamas, the Gaza-based Islamist group, and in particular about its access to Iranian-made Fajr-5 rockets.  Those are the ones that can reach into the light-yellow region.”

Erasing Palestine from the Map

The second major problem with this map is that Palestine—both historic and contemporary—is erased from it.  A white dotted line traces the border between the West Bank and Israel but the line is barely visible beneath the yellow-shaded ring.  Moreover, “West Bank” (not “occupied West Bank,” or “occupied Palestinian territory,” or “Palestinian West Bank” or “Palestine,” mind you) appears in font so small that it seems to designate some tiny city northeast of Jerusalem, not the Palestinian territory occupied by Israel since 1967.  And while Israeli municipalities such as Arad, Ashdod, Holan, and Hrzliya, among others, are included, nowhere can one find the Palestinian cities of Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem, or Jericho, much less al-Bira, Jenin, or Qalqilia. Only Jerusalem and Hebron, West Bank cities that are significant to both Israelis and Palestinians, are featured. Even Jaffa, the coastal Palestinian city north of Tel Aviv, has been replaced by the Israeli-Hebrew version, “Yafo.”

So what does this map tell us about the Israel-Palestine conflict?  It’s not apparent what or where Palestine is, or that it even exists, but the map suggests that an ever-menacing, Iranian-supported Islamist group threatens more than half of Israel.  And therefore, Israel is “concerned.”  Presumably, the reader might conclude, that “concern” forces Israel to periodically defend itself, launching its own counter-attacks into the Gaza Strip.  The West Bank, meanwhile, appears for all intents and purposes, part of Israel and in no way related to the Gaza Strip or the cartographically cleansed “Palestine.”  So Israel’s geography is simplified into a need to defend itself and Palestine is wiped off the map.

Concealing more than it reveals

The Washington Post’s map (which is actually just a simple google map lifted from someone named “Gene,” whose cartographic resume also includes google maps of “Richmond Bars/Restaurants” and “Jane Austin’s England”) doesn’t reveal how and to what extent Israel has “defended” itself against the perceived threat of Hamas’s rockets.  The threat is all that is deemed important; a map showing where and with what deadly ramifications Israel’s responses have taken place, such as this one produced by the Alliance for Justice in the Middle East at Harvard University and the MIT Center for Future Civic Media, didn’t make the Post’s list.

Any attempt to cartographically represent the context within which Hamas’s rockets and Israel’s “response” may have been launched, such as this UN map, is also entirely missing from the Post’s compilation.

In addition to nearly erasing the Palestinian West Bank altogether, the Post’s map reveals nothing about the multiple ways in which the territory is occupied by Israel.  Maps of Israeli-only roads, checkpoints, the separation barrier, settlements, and the ethnically-based divisions of the West Bank (such as these from Btselem, the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions, and The Applied Institute for Research – Jerusalem) don’t, according to the Washington Post, help explain this part of the world as much as Gene’s map of Hamas’s rocket-firing potential.

The Washington Post’s map of choice sheds no light on the Palestinian villages within Israel that were ethnically cleansed and destroyed in 1948-1949.  References to these maps from the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA) and Visualizing Palestine could have at least begun to cartographically resurrect these erased landscapes.

The Dangers of Distorted Cartography

In sum, The Washington Post’s map explains very little about this part of the world.  But what the map does reveal is The Washington Post’s myopic view of Israel and Palestine.  The ongoing colonization of Palestine by Israel is reduced and reversed, in this map’s representation, to a normal country that must fend off existential threats from its shadowy neighbors.  The effects of this distorted cartography are dangerous—erasing the geographies of Palestine is yet another step in the ongoing occupation and ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

Robert Ross is an Assistant Professor of Global Cultural Studies at Point Park University, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His research and teaching focus upon the political-economic geographies of Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and the United States. He is also a member of the Pittsburgh Palestine Solidarity Committee and the Israel-Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

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