If you take a look at Israel and Palestine on any widely used satellite imagery platform, you may notice the images are surprisingly blurry. Trees and cars in Gaza City are little more than fuzzy splodges on the screen, and even buildings are tough to clearly make out. The scarcity of high-res satellite images has been a problem for analysts and journalists looking to understand the devastation that is unfolding in the region at the moment.
“I know this is the least of the issues going on in Gaza now, but it's absurd that Google (and Bing, and even Yandex) refuse to provide non-potato satellite imagery for some of the most densely populated places on earth, and are regularly hit by Israeli airstrikes,” tweeted Aric Toler from the investigative journalism website Bellingcat.
"The most recent Google Earth image is from 2016 and looks like trash. I zoomed in on some random rural area of Syria and it has had 20+ images taken since that time, in very high resolution," added Toler in the following tweet.
The scarcity of high-res satellite images of Israel and Palestine is not an issue of lacking technology, but the result of a little-known law in the US.
Known as the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment (KBA), put into force by the US Military Defense National Defense Authorization Act for 1997, the law prohibited the release of detailed satellite imagery of Israel by US agencies. More precisely, the KBA says that the US government was only allowed to issue a license for the collection or dissemination of satellite imagery of Israel provided it was “no more detailed or precise than satellite imagery of Israel that is available from commercial sources.”
In other words, US companies weren’t allowed to gather and distribute images of Israel and Palestine unless it was relatively quality (the law doesn’t explicitly mention Palestine, but it has been applied to occupied Palestinian territories such as Gaza and the West Bank).
Israel and Palestine were the only places in the world where such a law has been applied. It was never disclosed how this regulation came into being, but many contend it was in support of “security concerns” for Israel. Others argue that the KBA was an example of censorship used to conceal Israel's actions against Palestinians, such as home demolitions.
Since the law only applies to the US, companies in other countries have been taking satellite images of the region in recent decades. However, since the commercial market for satellite imagery was dominated by the US, most of the publicly available imagery in circulation was low quality.
The KBA become a bugbear for the scientific community, from climate scientists to archeologists, who desire the open exchange of information for their work. In the face of this opposition, the KBA prohibition was lifted in July 2020, but many of the widely available satellite images of the region still remain relatively low quality.
The BBC spoke to both Apple and Google about the quality of their images of Israel and Palestine provided on their satellite imagery platforms (although it’s worth highlighting they obtain images through third-party satellite companies). Apple replied saying they’re working to update their imagery of the region, while Google said they will likely update their platform once higher-resolution imagery becomes available, but has no immediate plans to do so.