The Gaza Strip, one of the most populous places in the world, is visible in very low resolution satellite photographs.
This has been pointed out by researchers using open sources to locate the impact sites and document the destruction.
“The fact that we are not receiving high-resolution satellite imagery from Israel and the Palestinian territories is hampering our work,” says Samir, one such researcher.
Indeed, most of Israel and the Palestinian Territories look illegible on Google Earth, although better imagery can be obtained from satellite companies.
On the streets of Gaza, you can hardly see cars on Google Earth images.
For comparison, satellite photos of Pyongyang, the capital of one of the most closed countries in the world, clearly show not only cars, but also figures of people.
Why are satellite photos important?
These images are a vital source of information on the Middle East conflict. They help researchers determine the points from which missile strikes are launched, as well as the targets hit, both in Gaza and in Israel.
However, on Google Earth, the most used satellite imagery platform, the images of Gaza are blurred.
“The most recent photo of Gaza on Google Earth dates back to 2016 and looks terrible. I randomly selected one of the rural areas of Syria and found more than twenty later high-resolution images of it,” Arik Toler, a journalist working for the group, tweeted. Bellingcat.
Google says its policy is to keep populated areas updated regularly, but this is not the case with Gaza.
Can you get high quality images?
Until mid-last year, the US government limited the quality of photographs of Israel and the Palestinian Territories provided by US satellite companies for commercial use.
This was done in accordance with a piece of legislation known as the Kila-Bingaman Amendment, passed in 1997 in the interests of Israel's security.
The resolution was limited to two meters per pixel, making objects the size of a car barely visible.
Blurring images of individual locations, such as military bases, is common practice, but the Keel-Bingaman Amendment is the only time it has affected an entire country.
Only Israel was mentioned in it, but in fact the restriction was applied to the Palestinian territories as well.
Since the amendment did not prevent non-US providers, such as the French Airbus, from providing high-resolution photos, the US authorities began to exert increasing pressure to cancel it.
In July 2020, this happened, and now American companies can sell images at a much higher resolution (40 centimeters per pixel, which makes it possible to distinguish separate people).
“We were guided by the interests of science,” says Michael Fredley, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford and one of the scientists who pushed for the revocation of the amendment. “Our project requires a comprehensive database of photographs of the occupied Palestinian territories in the same resolution as elsewhere in the Middle East region. “.
So why does Gaza remain blurred?
The BBC turned to Google and Apple (which also provide satellite maps of the Earth on their platform).
Apple said it is working to bring its maps up to 40cm per pixel.
Google responded that it is receiving images from many providers and is considering updating the maps as higher quality images become available, adding that it has no plans to do so at this time.
“Given the importance of the current events, I see no reason why the quality of images of the region in the commercial domain should be artificially reduced further,” Nick Waters of Bellingcat tweeted.
Who is taking the pictures?
Mapping platforms such as Google Earth and Apple Maps rely on companies that own commercial satellites.
The largest of these, Maxar and Planet Labs, are now making quality imagery of Israel and Gaza publicly available.
“Thanks to the latest changes in US law, photos of Israel and Gaza are being provided in 0.4 meter (40 cm) resolution,” Maxar said in a statement.
Planet Labs has confirmed to the BBC that it sells 50cm images.
However, open source researchers rely mainly on free software and do not always have access to these photos.
What can you see in high definition?
Human Rights Watch collaborated with Planet Labs in 2017 to document the destruction of Rohingya villages by the Burmese military.
By comparing photographs with a resolution of 40 cm taken before and after the raids, human rights defenders were able to assess the damage done to more than two hundred settlements.
The data corroborated complaints by Rohingya fugitives in neighboring Bangladesh about the army's deliberate destruction of their homes.
Satellite photographs have also proven invaluable for tracking the situation in China's Xinjiang province, allowing the location, size and specific features of the “re-education centers” for Uyghurs that have been established there in recent years.