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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Blurry Satellite Images of Palestine and Israel Make Rebuilding Harder

The latest wave of violence between Israel and Palestine ended on May 20, after the two sides agreed to a cease-fire.

The Gaza Strip suffered the bulk of the deaths and destruction, where air strikes killed more than 230 people and destroyed more than 1,000 residential and commercial buildings. The New York Times described the landscape as "a sea of rubble." Multiple hospitals, power lines, schools, sewage systems, and roads had been damaged or destroyed.

Palestinians are now starting the long process of reconstruction, supported by humanitarian organizations, and are looking back to the conflict for indications of human rights abuses, supported by investigative journalists. But that work is being made harder and costlier by a lack of good satellite images of Israel and Palestine in free mapping tools.

At the height of the violence, open source investigators on Twitter noted that regions such as Gaza appear much blurrier on platforms like Google Earth, which collects satellite imagery from a variety of sources. The reason is an obscure US regulation, called the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment, that used to forbid American companies from providing higher-resolution satellite images of the region due to security concerns expressed by Israel. The regulation was scrapped last year, and the limit is now similar to the resolution allowed for other parts of the world. Many commercial satellite imagery providers, such as Planet Labs, quickly adjusted their products, while popular free tools, including Google Earth, did not. 

A comparison between images provided by Planet Labs and those found on Google Earth shows the stark difference in resolution.

The more accurate images make it possible to see the features of buildings, count individual trees, identify vehicles on the road, and count lines printed on the pavement. They show more color variations, the precise shapes of things like squares and blocks. And on the free services, satellite images of Israel and Palestine are updated less frequently than other parts of the world. On Google Earth, for example, some areas of New York City have five different satellite images just for 2020, while some areas of Gaza City have five images for the past 35 years.

That makes a big difference for people on the ground, including the humanitarian organizations trying to help Palestinians in their reconstruction effort.

Riskier and More Imprecise

The International Committee of the Red Cross has operated in Israel and Palestine since the 1960s, offering health services and other assistance to people during and after outbreaks of violence. It also helps communities rebuild. The ICRC is making repairs to the water system, the power network, and the sewage system in the Gaza Strip.

Many of those activities involve the use of satellite images. "During times of conflict, we use imagery to detect the extent of damages and destruction," says Christoph Hanger, a spokesperson for the ICRC. And when it’s allowed to enter a conflict zone, it uses imagery to plan its movements. Once the conflict ends, "updated satellite imagery is essential to detect changes on the ground," says Hanger, to see how air strikes affected buildings and infrastructure and to identify areas that should get more attention.

The imagery provided by free tools like Google Earth are too degraded for the ICRC to use. The poor resolution, Hanger says, “increases the possibility to misinterpret the imagery and hence leads to a less effective operational response." As a result, he adds, the organization is forced to use commercial satellite imagery providers, which are more costly, and require additional human resources.

Blurred Evidence 

The degraded satellite images also affect people far away from Israel and Palestine: digital investigators pouring over images and videos of the conflict to identify potential human rights abuses. They use information openly available online, including content shared on social media, images and videos produced by Israelis and Palestinians, and satellite images available in free tools like Google Earth.

Nick Waters, a senior investigator at Bellingcat, a collective of open source investigators, says that satellite images play a "central part" in his work. "They allow the verification of images and videos taken on the ground by demonstrating exactly where they were taken and what they show." 

Waters has done multiple investigations into conflicts in the Middle East, including in Syria and Iraq, and is now looking into the recent wave of violence in Israel and Palestine. He says that the blurred images of the region make his work "far more difficult." They make it harder to identify damages from air strikes to buildings and roads, and the lack of updates makes it harder to verify content, "as buildings may have been built, changed, or removed in those years."

Bellingcat sometimes uses subscription services like Planet Labs. "However, for the vast majority of activists and organizations, buying commercial satellite imagery is extremely expensive," says Waters. Prices vary widely, and companies tend not to publicize them, but an image of a small piece of land will cost thousands of dollars if it needs to be produced anew, and hundreds of dollars if it’s available in the company's archive. "They generally rely on free sources such as Google Earth." 

Community Satellites

Eyal Weizman, the founder of Forensic Architecture, a research agency that does similar open source investigations in the Middle East, agrees that the degraded images harm his work. "It reduces the capacity to monitor Israeli violations," he says, and it puts the Israeli state in a position of power over Palestinians. "Israel controls what Palestinians can see."

In Forensic Architecture, his book about the agency’s work, Weizman writes that digital images are basically grids, made up of pixels. "This grid filters reality like a sieve or a fishing net. Objects larger than the grid are captured and retained. Smaller ones pass through and disappear." The Kyl-Bingaman Amendment in the US previously limited satellite images to a resolution of 2 meters per pixel, meaning that anything smaller than that would be blurred. While US regulations now permit a resolution of up to 0.4 meters per pixel, free mapping tools have remained at the old, more imprecise size.

Weizman has tried to find alternatives to the limitations of the sieve. For one project, Weizman and his collaborators attached cameras to kites to produce their own aerial imagery of the Negev desert. They called them "community satellites." The images were used to find small signs, like wells and graves, that proved that Palestinian villagers had previously lived in the area, something that was denied by Israel, which had repeatedly expelled the villagers from the area, calling them trespassers. 

The Israeli government maintains a website with satellite maps of the region, but Waters says that the tool is not "particularly useful." The images are also blurred and more than a decade old, and parts of the territory, including the entirety of the Gaza Strip, are covered in white. "Maps have always had the power to influence our understanding of the world around us," says Waters, and the fact that states want to control people’s ability to use them "is an indicator of how powerful this tool can be."

Another possible alternative is for Google and other commercial providers to start providing higher-quality images of the region, but that is unlikely to happen any time soon. When asked for comment, Google told WIRED that it's always evaluating opportunities to update its satellite images but that it had no plans to share about doing that for Israel and Palestine.

Until it does, the work of humanitarian organizations and digital investigators in Israel and Palestine will remain harder and costlier than necessary. "Imagery of this kind can help hold the powerful to account, and the denial of its availability is an attempt to prevent that,” says Waters. “Google and other providers should not be complicit in that.”

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