Tech by VICE

Waze Lets Israelis Avoid Palestinian Areas, but Not the Other Way Around

I drove across through the West Bank to find out if the navigation app has a double standard when it comes to identifying dangerous driving territories.

by Hunter Stuart
Oct 5 2016, 10:00am

Wall between Israeli and Palestinian territories. Image: David Lisbona/Wikimedia

Jennifer Attallah was using the navigation app Waze to drive from the Palestinian city of Ramallah to West Jerusalem on a recent evening when she noticed the landscape becoming sparser. On the top of several hills were small settlement outposts. She passed a procession of 15 to 20 people, clad all in white, walking by the side of the road.

Surely this was not the right way. Attallah, 36, turned on, a map app that works offline, and saw that she was not approaching Jerusalem, but Jericho, a small city near the Jordanian border, about 15 miles east of Jerusalem.

"I was definitely freaked out," said Attallah, a Palestinian-American who works for a U.S. government contractor in Ramallah. She eventually made it to Jerusalem, two hours after leaving her house. The trip should have taken 45 minutes, max.

Attallah later realized that Waze was set (as is the default) to "avoid dangerous driving areas and the A, B territories." In other words, the app was directing her to Jerusalem on a circuitous route designed to avoid Arab areas.

Waze's function allowing people to avoid "dangerous areas" and Palestinian towns and cities. This setting defaults to "on." Image: Hunter Stuart

Attallah and other Palestinians who use Waze, the Israeli-developed app that was sold to Google in 2013 for $1 billion, say it's a double standard that the company offers a special function for Jewish Israelis to avoid Palestinian areas in the West Bank, but doesn't offer a similar setting for Palestinians who wish to avoid Jewish ones.

It can be dangerous for Palestinians to enter settlement territory. Certain settlements have a history of extremism and are known for attacking Arabs and their property. Last year, settler attacks in the West Bank and East Jerusalem led to 89 Palestinian casualties, a rate of nearly two per week, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Three of those casualties were fatalities.

The danger is heightened in times of increased tension, like the recent wave of violence in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, which has left 269 people dead since Oct. 1, 2015. Residents of settlements are permitted by law to carry semi-automatic weapons for self-defense, and are allowed to use them with near impunity. The Israeli human rights group Yesh Din found last year that only 1.9 percent of Palestinian complaints to police about settler violence result in convictions.

There's good reason for Waze to provide the option for Jewish Israelis to avoid Palestinian cities. It's illegal for Israeli citizens to enter the major Palestinian cities in the West Bank like Ramallah, Bethlehem and Nablus. The legality issue is why Waze's function defaults to "on" when users download the app, Waze spokesperson Julie Mossler told Motherboard.

An Israeli government sign outside the Palestinian Christian village of Taybeh. Image: Hunter Stuart

Legality aside, life in the West Bank can be dangerous for Jewish Israelis. Last year, Palestinians in the West Bank killed 18 Israeli citizens, OCHA says. Navigational mishaps in the occupied territories have long been a source of anxiety for Israel.One of the most gruesome episodes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict occurred sixteen years ago when two Israeli army reservists accidentally drove into Ramallah and were lynched by an angry crowd. Their corpses were then mutilated and paraded through the city.

That was long before Waze existed. Yet even with Waze's special functional in place, Israelis and Jewish drivers using Waze in the West Bank have gotten themselves in trouble. In March, two Israeli soldiers using Waze mistakenly drove into a refugee camp near Jerusalem and were promptly attacked by camp residents. The Israeli army's rescue mission provoked a gun battle that left one Palestinian dead and 10 others wounded.

But some Palestinians are concerned that Waze's use of the phrase "dangerous areas" is subjective and stigmatizes their communities. On a recent drive through the West Bank it was clear that Waze was using the term "dangerous" to refer primarily to Arab cities in the West Bank and Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem.

The warning that appears when one tries to turn the setting off. Image: Hunter Stuart

By contrast, the app did not make a peep when I drove into the settlement of Maale Michmas or up to the security gate outside Mitzpe Danny, a pirate outpost built in the 1990s in violation of both Israeli and international law.

"Clearly their idea of what 'dangerous' means is very skewed," said Canaan Khoury, who owns a winery in the West Bank village of Taybeh and who has had his vines cut by settlers numerous times over the years.

Salah Amleh, a tech entrepreneur from Ramallah, said Waze's function defaulting to "on" will be bad for Palestinian businesses. "Tourists won't be able to come visit us because it automatically shuts down the routes and roads to Ramallah, for example," said Amleh, who is 36. "So it's as if the whole Palestinian map is invisible to it, and it will definitely affect the economy."

After turning down the road to the pirate outpost of Mitzpe Danny, Waze directs me into the settlement in order to turn around. This is dangerous for Palestinians. Image: Hunter Stuart

To be fair, creating an algorithm that can direct drivers safely and efficiently through the West Bank is a complicated endeavor. The region, which is home to around 350,000 Jewish settlers and an estimated 2.6 million Palestinians, is a tangled mindfuck of differing jurisdictions, military bases, checkpoints, barriers, bypass roads and more.

"Waze is a living, breathing global map, requiring… complex technical maintenance," spokesperson Mossler said, but did not respond when asked if Waze would consider implementing a function that would let drivers avoid settlements.

In a notoriously complex place, no one is expecting Waze to be perfect. Being fair is another story.