If you want to drive the 15 or so miles from Jerusalem to the city of Jericho, in the Palestinian Territories, Google Maps will tell you: “Can’t find a way there.” Waze will issue a warning: “Caution: This destination is in a high risk area or is prohibited to Israelis by law.” If you press “Confirm Drive” nonetheless, the app will direct you, just not all the way.
When you pass from Israel into the West Bank, part of the occupied Palestinian Territories, Waze’s directions simply end. To keep going, you need to change your setting to allow access to “high risk” areas. Even then, GPS coverage tends to be limited.
If you’re set on crossing the often invisible dividing line between Israel and the Palestinian Territories, your best option is to close Waze and open Maps.Me. The Belarus–born, now Russian–owned navigation app pulls from open source mapping and can be downloaded for offline use, a crucial feature in the Territories, where there’s no 3G for Palestinian providers.
Maps.Me is more than a source of directions. It’s a database of roads, schools, squares, shops, and other landmarks that programmers have plotted through open source mapping (a Wikipedia–like system, where anyone can add their knowledge), places that otherwise would have been left largely off the radar. It’s a solution born of a push from Palestinians and international NGOs over the past decade to increase mapping in the West Bank and Gaza—to put Palestine, literally and figuratively, on the map.
In the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. It annexed the latter—a move the international community largely rejects. In a break with foreign policy custom, President Donald Trump announced this week that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Since the mid-’90s, the Palestinian Authority, based in Ramallah, has had semiautonomous control over parts of the West Bank, called Area A and B. At the same time, Israeli settlements (illegal under international law) have expanded in the largest section of the West Bank, called Area C, land the Palestinians claim as their own. Gaza, meanwhile, has been ruled by Hamas (considered a terrorist group by the United States and Europe) and under blockade by Israel and Egypt after a civil war in 2007 pushed out the Palestinian Authority.
In a place and conflict where “facts on the ground” are endlessly contested, having access to good navigation maps and apps is not just a matter of getting there. It’s about recording Palestinian life on the land, and giving people on this side of the dotted line the same access to information and movement as people have on the Israeli side.
“There’s a lot of discussion all over the world, and yet we don’t really know what these places look like,” says Mikel Maron, a programmer and geographer who organized a map-a-thon for Gaza in 2008 with Engineers Without Borders and Palestinian engineers. “The most basic infrastructure of daily life deserves to be seen.”
Maps.me started in 2011 in Belarus, and now has around 80 million downloads, says cofounder Alexander Boresk. The company, which moved to Moscow after a Russian internet company acquired it at the end of 2014, operates on a simple premise. It takes the open source information available through openstreetmap.org—a free crowd-sourced mapping service—and uses its software to operate its own map and navigation tools with the data. After one team member visited internet-starved Cuba, the team decided to make the maps downloadable for offline use. (Google Maps offers a similar feature.)
For the West Bank and Gaza, programmers using Open Street Maps fill in the names of streets and add the locations of shops, restaurants, schools, parks, squares, and mosques. Once the app is downloaded, any user can add their own pins for a previously undocumented bypass or shop they frequent.
“I think everything is political,” says Nasser Abujabal, who works at the Geospatial team in the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Local Governments. There, he creates maps and collects data for the West Bank and Gaza, including the locations of agricultural and infrastructural points, which individuals or organizations can then use as the basis for further mapping.
The app is still second tier compared to Google Maps and Waze, however. Places can be hard to find depending on the English transliteration or the programmer’s spelling. Or the app may say it will only take 15 minutes to drive the 12 miles from Jerusalem to Ramallah in the West Bank, not accounting for the checkpoints, winding roads, and traffic that usually make for a 45- to 90-minute trip.
Boresk knows it’s not always seamless, and says the company is working to improve navigation timing. But some elements of life in the West Bank will be far trickier to sort out.
In Israel, Waze—a homegrown app—is an indispensable resource and includes perks like warning you of upcoming police and speed traps. But in the West Bank, it gets more complicated. In Area C (where Israelis are allowed), many of the roads are new, built to connect those contested settlements to the rest of Israel. As Waze bases directions on what others report, these are the main roads and highways to which Waze directs drivers. It makes sense. It can also be a problem for people in cars with Palestinian license plates, which are restricted from some of those streets. “Waze may examine the issue of Palestinian license-plate-based restrictions to evaluate the possibility of supporting it,” a Waze spokesperson says.
When you do enter a part of the West Bank under Palestinian control, Waze will tell you that it’s dangerous and forbidden for Israeli citizens. (Enforcement is complicated, however, as Palestinian citizens of Israel can go back and forth.) “Israeli citizens are prohibited from entering areas A, B, and the application offers a setting which supports this limitation,” the Waze spokesperson says. “Local A, B area residents may remove this limitation and move freely in those areas.”
Google Maps, for its part, is no stranger to controversies over what it does, or does not, put on the map. Palestinians may take its paltry coverage of the West Bank, for example, as personal, but the company denies there’s politics at play. “Some areas are harder to map than others due to a combination of factors including lack of quality data and lack of infrastructure on the ground,” a Google spokesperson says. It is making an effort: While major West Bank Palestinian cities like Ramallah, Jericho, and Bethlehem have for years been largely a blank white space, in April Google sent Google cars around them in an effort to increase mapping.
Others have taken on the cartographic challenge, too. During the 2014 Gaza war the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, headed by Maron, the programmer and geographer, spearheaded an effort to map residences in order to assess the extent of damage and places destroyed. In June, Careem, the Dubai–based “Uber of the Middle East,” launched in Ramallah, with its own tailored map (though it did cut services in November after pressure from the Palestinian Authority). And the Ramallah municipality is working to increase public WiFi, so the lack of 3G is less of a problem. Rebuilding Alliances, a US–based nonprofit, has organized Map-a-Thons in which Palestinian and international programmers record buildings and agriculture in previously unmapped villages.
Another element of this sort of open source mapping? You never really know who’s sharing their knowledge. Ben Zion, 23, an Israeli cartographer from Rehovot (who requested only his last name be used for privacy reasons), has been adding to open source mapping since 2009, but was surprised to hear that he was among the top contributors for the West Bank. There, he maps the roads, sites, and farms around Gush Etzion, a major settlement block, where he went to school and has friends and family. He started contributing because he was fascinated by mapping; his skill proved an asset during his mandatory military service.
Like many Jewish Israelis, he has little contact with Palestinians. From his computer perch, he had never considered how his maps or navigation apps worked or looked like from the other side.