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Navigation App Sends Israeli Soldiers Into a West Bank Refugee Camp, Sparking Fatal Clashes

In a tragic catalogue of errors, fatal clashes broke out after two Israeli soldiers accidentally entered a Palestinian refugee camp while using a popular GPS cellphone app to navigate.

by Harriet Salem
Mar 1 2016, 11:50am

Photo by Abed al Hashlamoun/EPA

A Palestinian man was killed on Monday night after Israeli soldiers using a cellphone navigation app accidentally entered a West Bank refugee camp, prompting fierce clashes and a helicopter-led manhunt.

The two non-combat soldiers from the Oketz K-9 unit apparently lost their way while using Waze; a traffic and mapping app developed by Israeli entrepreneur Uri Levine and sold to Google for a reported $1.1 billion in 2013.

According to local media reports the two soldiers coming from the direction of Beit El settlement took a wrong turn north of Jerusalem eventually winding up in Qalandia, a crowded refugee camp near to Ramallah.

Waze has a setting which enables Israeli drivers to "avoid dangerous areas" — including the Palestinian controlled A and B territories of West Bank,  the former of which Israeli law prohibits its citizens from entering — but it is not clear if the soldiers had enabled the option. Toll roads and freeways can also be avoided by users on request.

On entering the camp the soldiers were reportedly set upon by an angry crowd that threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at their unarmored military vehicle setting it ablaze. As the soldiers fled they separated.

One soldier made immediate contact with the army's West Bank division from a hiding place inside the camp, but unable to reach the other soldier the Israel Defense Forces reportedly issued a Hannibal Directive; the codename for a controversial order permitting extraordinary measures to prevent or end the abduction of one of their men.

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In the ensuing rescue mission special forces and helicopters were deployed to the camp, where violent confrontations broke out killing one Palestinian man and injuring at least ten Israeli soldiers and border police officers. The missing soldier was eventually located in the nearby Jewish settlement Kochav Yaakov which he walked to after fleeing from the burning military vehicle. 

The incident comes as the most bloody round of violence between Israelis and Palestinians since the Second Intifada (which took place between 2000 and 2005) stretches into its sixth month. Since the beginning of October, 28 Israelis have been killed in a series of stabbing, shooting, and vehicle attacks by Palestinians from West Bank and East Jerusalem. On the other side Israeli security forces have killed at least 170 Palestinians, 112 of whom Israel says were shot while carrying out attacks.

Waze has nearly 50 million users worldwide and in 2013 won the award for the "Best Overall App" at the Mobile World Congress. The program, which uses crowdsourced information to alert drivers to speed cameras and route them around traffic jams, currently has complete base maps for 13 countries including; Israel, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, South Africa and Colombia.

Related: A Palestinian Journalist is Close to Death, 92 Days Into One of World's Longest Hunger Strikes

This is not the first time that a Waze user has been led into danger. Last October a 70-year-old Brazilian woman, Regina Múrmura, was shot and killed while driving with her husband after the app led the elderly couple into a gang-controlled favela in Rio de Janeiro, due to replicated street names in different parts of the city.

In December 2014 Los Angeles Police Department complained that the police locator feature on the app could be "misused used by those with criminal intent" after two officers were shot by Ismaaiyl Brinsley who posted a screenshot from Waze on his Instagram account just hours before carrying out the attack — though Brinsley did discard his phone two miles away from scene of the crime.

Speaking at the Tel Aviv New Tech exhibition for military products on Tuesday morning, Israel's Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said that the incident highlighted the importance of soldiers being trained in "navigating with the aid of a real map.. and not to rely too heavily on technology which can lead the user astray."

In a statement published on Tuesday afternoon, Waze hit back at the suggestion it was to blame for the soldiers mistakenly entering the camp, and highlighted the app's safety feature which enables users to avoid areas that are "dangerous or prohibited for Israelis to drive through."

"In this case [of the two Israeli soldiers entering Qalandia] the setting was disabled. In addition, the driver deviated from the suggested route and as a result, entered the prohibited area…There are also red signs on the road in question that prohibit access to Palestinian-controlled territories (for Israelis). It is the responsibility of every driver to adhere to road and traffic signs and obey local laws," the company said in a statement to AFP.

Brigadier-General Motti Almoz told Israel's Army Radio that the two soldiers' use of the Waze app was under investigation. The investigation is expected to focus on the conduct of the lost duo and the orders they were given by their commander.

The Israel Defense Forces did not respond to VICE News' request for comment. 

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem

Reuters contributed to this report.

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