Waze traffic app becomes Israeli-Palestinian battleground

Waze traffic app becomes Israeli-Palestinian battleground

Advocates of the terms ‘security fence’ and ‘separation wall’ are fighting it out on the virtual roads

Screenshot of a Waze user map with both terms listed. (Courtesy)
Screenshot of a Waze user map with both terms listed. (Courtesy)

Waze drivers with access to the platform’s editable road maps have, over the past weeks, changed the name of the fence running between Israel proper and the West Bank, with the name seesawing between “Security Fence” and “Separation Wall.” This makes the commuter app the latest battleground in an ongoing “political mapping” struggle between supporters of Israel and those opposed to its policies.

A spokesperson for Waze said that the company did not know anything about it and did not get involved in politics.

Waze is the app drivers around the world turn to for information about their commutes. The platform collects information including traffic, speed, accidents, potholes, and police surveillance and broadcasts it out to users of the app. Waze uses GPS location services and other smartphone features to automatically gauge how fast and where a driver is traveling, then transposes the information onto a map. Maps are updated automatically on a regular basis to reflect closures, construction and new additions.

To ensure maximum accuracy, Waze also allows online users to edit the maps. The idea is to enable residents to update street or neighborhood names, details the platform can’t update automatically. Those changes are reflected on the maps seen in the mobile versions of the app.

Waze drivers have access to landmarks. The security fence, the official name used by the Defense Ministry for the structure, is one of the most politicized landmarks in the world. The fence roughly follows the Green Line (the 1949 armistice lines), with forays into the areas of the settlement blocs in Judea (Gush Etzion, Beitar, Maaleh Adumim) and Samaria (the Ariel bloc).

The structure’s name is also a matter of fierce political contention. According to the BBC style guide, for example, “security fence” is itself a political term, buying into the Israeli government’s claim of what it is supposed to be. The BBC usually uses “separation fence.”

A quick perusal of sites of organizations not suspected of sympathy to the Zionist cause (Al Jazeera, Electronic Intifada), along with Israeli groups opposed to Israel’s West Bank presence (Btselem, Peace Now) indicates a preference for the term “separation barrier” or “separation wall,” going against those who believe that the fence has saved Israeli lives by keeping terrorists outside Israeli population centers. According to the Defense Ministry, most of the fence is a fence. The “wall” part is built along portions of the fence where there are large Palestinian and Israeli population centers, such as in Jerusalem and next to the Palestinian towns of Kalkilya and Tulkarem, which are adjacent to Kfar Saba and the suburbs of Netanya respectively.

It appears that the gauntlet has been raised by both sides. Over the past week, portions of the structure have sported both “security fence” and “separation wall,” with the names switching back and forth, sometimes several times a day. The names appear in more than a dozen spots along the length of the structure.

If Waze users on either side are trying to change the app’s map to reflect their political viewpoint, the efforts seem to be individual in nature. Spokespeople for Israeli activist groups on the both the left and right (Peace Now, B’Tselem, Regavim, Im Tirtzu) said that they were not aware of any organized campaign to politicize Waze maps. Tal Grunberg, an activist behind a petition to get Israeli TV weather maps, school textbooks and Waze to display the Green Line, said he had nothing to do with the matter.

“All maps of Israel that are taught in schools, are shown in the media, Waze and in weather reports, show Israel as a land that had already annexed the West Bank,” said Grunberg. “This constitutes a blunt indoctrination that affects students, soldiers and civilians. Generations are raised to believe that the West Bank is a part of Israel despite the fact that these territories were never annexed by any of the Israeli governments since 1967.” While he is happy that “someone is bringing some sense to Waze,” he doesn’t know whom to congratulate.

A Waze spokesperson said the company was unaware of the matter. “We’re a technology company, and we don’t take political stances. The data on our maps comes from Waze users,” the spokesperson said.

Waze is now owned by Google, which has its own editable maps, where users can add place names and landmarks. Google Maps shows the route of the fence, but does not call it anything. It also displays the Green Line. However, Google Maps for Israel is not currently editable. According to Internet rumor, this is because the company is concerned about political map editing. A spokesperson for Google had no comment. It should be noted that Google Maps editing is also closed in Russia, China, Spain, Ireland and Portugal, all of which currently have unclear or unresolved territorial disputes with neighbors. Maps for Jordan and Lebanon are not editable either. Meanwhile, Waze maps continue to be publicly editable, and the company said they have no plans to change that at this time.

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