The Quest to Rebuild Palestine, and the Satellite Imagery that makes it difficult
You may not think of satellite imagery when thinking about rebuilding communities after conflicts or disasters. And yet, satellite images can be vital in these efforts. So why are the satellite images we have of Palestine and Israel so blurry? And what impact does this have on rebuilding the region after decades of conflict? To start explaining this we need to go back to May 2021.
“I was under the rubble, waiting to die and I did not despair. There are a lot of memories still there, but the Israeli bombing buried them.” Riad Ishkontana lost his wife, two sons, and two daughters in the most recent airstrikes by Israel on Gaza which hit Ishkontana’s home in Rimal.
This image below shows just a fraction of the Rimal neighbourhood in Gaza — a neighbourhood that was previously seen as relatively calm and safe since it was not targeted during the missile fire in 2014. Just down the road from the Ishkontana home towers Al-Shifa, the largest hospital in Gaza. The doctors and nursing staff have been working round the clock to tend to the high number of wounded and deceased since the start of the most recent bombings on May 10 onward.
During the most recent 11-day bombardment by Israel on Gaza, Rimal was one of the heavily targeted neighbourhoods. According to reporting from New York Times’ Visual Investigations, the Israeli missiles dropped on the streets of civilian neighbourhoods throughout Gaza, in an attempt to disrupt alleged Hamas tunnels and command centres beneath the neighbourhoods. In the image above, the orange dots show just a small fraction of the impact sites of the missiles on Rimal on the street where Riad Ishkontana and his family lived. And whilst it is hard to see it clearly in the image, the Ishkontana family lived in one of the apartment buildings right next to the missile impact site.
The fact that the satellite images we have of Palestine are grainy and too unclear to be truly insightful has not gone unnoticed. Nick Waters, a Digital Investigator who uses satellite imagery in his investigations, points out that the satellite imagery we have of Israel and Palestine continues to be “deliberately degraded”. This degradation makes it very hard to make out the buildings on the road where Riad Ishkontana lived. So where does this deliberate degradation of satellite imagery stem from?
These blurry satellite images are mainly found on commercial platforms like Google Earth, which countless people use to explore the world, investigate, and look at the recently introduced timeline to show climate change and rapid changes that our world is going through. The blurry imagery is because these commercial platforms usually don’t show items that are smaller than 2 metres. This is why you’re still able to make out the rough outlines but not any of the details.
The BBC points out that the satellite imagery we have of Gaza is actually less clear than the satellite images we have for some of the most mysterious places in the world — like the capital of North Korea, Pyongyang.
The situation in Israel and Palestine now
The region has been marked by conflict for as long as most people can remember. The last wave of violence —lasting 11 days — reached a ceasefire just at the end of last May.
This years-long conflict has left its scars on the region. Especially to the territory of Palestine, which has lived under a 15-year Israeli blockade. According to Reuters, Palestinian officials have said that it would cost around $100 million to rebuild the damages done to industry, power and agriculture. An unsurprising amount? given that during these last 11 days of violence alone, it is estimated that more than 322 Palestinian-owned structures were demolished in the West Bank and Gaza, displacing over 460 people.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, this destruction is part of a larger pattern — since more than 6,800 Palestinian owned buildings have been demolished because of lack of permits, leading over 9,600 people to be displaced.
The UN further estimates that 800,000 people in Gaza do not have “regular access to clean piped water, as nearly 50% of the water network was damaged in the bombing”. Rebuilding the area is therefore extremely important to improve the lives of those living in the region.
Why Satellite Imagery is so Important?
- Rebuilding the Area
Commercial satellite images from platforms like Google Earth are extremely helpful in the task of rebuilding regions that have suffered from large scale damages — for example from a natural disaster in the case of hurricane Katrina in the US, and in conflict-torn regions. In fact, satellite imagery has proven so useful in rebuilding communities that we’ve been launching commercial satellites up in space to provide good satellite imagery for humanitarian purposes.
Using satellite imagery to help rebuild communities after disasters have already been used elsewhere. When the Indonesian island Sulawesi was hit by a 7.5 magnitude earthquake and a subsequent tsunami, it not only took the lives of 2000 people, but it destroyed much of the infrastructure and farmland there that sustained the Sulawesi population. In recent years, the European Space Agency and the Asian Development Bank have used satellite imagery to rebuild parts of what was lost in the natural disaster in Sulawesi. In the case of Indonesia, satellite images are also used to see how to best avoid a similar disaster if something similar happens again, by not just rebuilding communities, but rebuilding them with better capacities to withstand a possible future disaster.
Unclear satellite imagery has other heavy implications, as Foreign Policy puts it: “Arguably the most glaring of [implications] has been its effects on monitoring the decades-long Israeli occupation — including documenting home demolitions, territorial disputes, and settlement growth”.
Reporters like Nick Waters, local investigators and NGO’s like the Red Cross, use satellite imagery to corroborate information on missile fires and targeted buildings and streets. However, without clear satellite imagery, it can often be impossible to do any kind of investigating or monitoring.
The KBA Agreement
To understand why some commercial satellite imagery is less clear we need to go back to 1997. At that time, U.S. President Bill Clinton strived to make some radical reforms to the way that satellite technology was being used — from supporting espionage activities to wider commercial use. Since this reform would have impacts globally — on the way satellite imagery would be used and accessed worldwide — this sparked broader discussions.
According to Foreign Policy, Israel in particular lobbied for stricter regulation regarding satellite imagery of the region. This eventually led to the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment in the U.S. National Defence Authorisation Act: the only U.S. censorship of satellite imagery, worldwide.
The amendment is officially called the “Prohibition on collection and release of detailed satellite imagery relating to Israel” and ensured that commercial satellite images of Israeli and Palestinian territories couldn’t show items that were smaller than 2 metres (or 6.56 ft) across. This means that any of the fine details would automatically not be shown in these images.
Because the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment was only a small fraction of a larger U.S. piece of legislation, it technically only applied to U.S. companies. However, given that most of the big names in satellite imagery are from the U.S. — like Google Eart or Maxar — the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment also had a major impact on the way that non-U.S. companies approach satellite imagery. According to SpaceNews, there is an increasing number of non-U.S. companies that do not show detailed satellite images of Israel and Palestine.
However, the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment was reformed in 2012. This means that high-resolution satellite imagery should be legally available to the public. Nonetheless, this reform did not yet have a major impact on the quality of satellite imagery today because the degradation of the images of Israel and Palestine has been adopted and institutionalised by so many space-based remote sensing systems.
Satellite Imagery of Israel and Palestine
The most recent images we have of Gaza on Google Earth and Google Maps were taken in 2016. In contrast — other densely populated places have images as recent as this year. And that is an important factor: densely populated. Gaza, as well as the West Bank, are extremely densely populated. There are about 5000 people per square metre in Gaza, making it one of the most densely populated areas worldwide.
On their website, Google notes that they aim to update satellite imagery of the places that are “changing the most. For instance because big cities are always evolving, we try to update our satellite images every year”. However, despite the reform to the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment, the images of Israel and Palestine have remained outdated and unclear.
Nonetheless, there are some positive developments. Christoph Koettl, an investigative journalist with the New York Times has pointed out that other companies like Maxar have started publishing satellite images of Gaza following the recent resurge of conflict. These images show the destruction of the Hanadi tower, and oil storage tank. At the moment though, high quality, commercial satellite images of Israel and Palestine are still sparse and they often lack the broad accessibility that platforms like Google Earth have.
The blurred satellite imagery we have of Israel and Palestine is far from the only regions in the world that are unclear from the skies. Cartographic censorship — as the modification or lack of clarity of maps is called — can be used to disguise or remove potentially strategic places. Think about military bases, nuclear power plants, or really anything else that may be of interest.
With the reform of the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment, there should be a further move towards providing clear satellite imagery of Israel and Palestine, to help efforts towards rebuilding the region after years of conflict, and investigate what is going on. In the end, improving satellite imagery is certainly not the only step necessary for rebuilding the community and homes of people in the Gaza and West Bank, but it is a significant step in the right direction.