Israel can’t hide evidence of its occupation anymore

A satellite image shows Gaza City and the Jabalia Refugee Camp in the northern Gaza Strip (Orbital Horizon - Copernicus Sentinel Data)

Zena Agha

Foreign Policy  /  August 3, 2020

For more than 20 years, an obscure U.S. law concealed satellite imagery of Israel’s activities in the occupied territories. Because of an abrupt reversal, satellite technology can now be used to defend Palestinians’ human rights.

For the past two decades, there has been a general—and mostly unchallenged—understanding that satellite imagery is restricted over Israel and the Palestinian and Syrian territories it occupies. This was due to a 1996 U.S. regulation known as the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment (KBA) which has limited the quality and availability of high-resolution satellite imagery produced by U.S. companies covering Israel (and by implicit extension, the occupied Palestinian territories and the occupied Golan Heights). The result is that publicly available imagery on platforms such as Google Earth has been deliberately coarse and blurred.

On June 25, following two years of sustained pressure from academia and civil society, the 97-word KBA was unexpectedly reformed, making higher-resolution satellite imagery legally accessible and readily available to all. The news, though welcome, raises certain questions: First, what were the effects of the KBA? Second, since satellite imagery has advanced significantly both in scale and diversity in the 24 years since the KBA was passed, why did it take so long to reverse?

The KBA was a by-product of the aftermath of the Cold War, when the satellite imagery industry was still young. President Bill Clinton sought to refashion technology formerly used for espionage for a wider, commercial usage. He also moved to declassify U.S. spy satellite imagery from the 1960s and 1970s.

The combination of commercialization and declassification rang alarm bells in some quarters. Israel, driven by a desire for Cold War secrecy, lobbied Congress for stricter regulation, which led to the passing of the KBA: the U.S. government’s only censorship of imagery of any part of the world.

The legislation, implemented under the guise of protecting Israel’s national security, was actually more an act of censorship.

After all, high-resolution satellite imagery allows researchers to understand, identify, and document landscape changes. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) within the U.S. Department of Commerce is responsible for implementing the regulations concerning remote sensing. Since the KBA did not specify the resolution permitted, the regulation was fixed at 2 meters per pixel.

By contrast, commercial imagery available today is more likely to range from 0.25-0.6 meters per pixel. It is the difference between seeing the broad outline of a large building and being able to see individual vehicles parked outside. It is possible to identify substantial changes in land use (for instance, the building of city-size settlements or the bulldozing of Palestinian structures) at the two-meter limit, but subtler changes—such as the growth of outpost settlements or small military emplacements—are harder to discern. For 24 years, the legislation obfuscated the damaging effects of the Israeli occupation by literally hiding them from view.

The censorship over Israel and the occupied territories has had negative archaeological, geographical, and humanitarian implications. Arguably the most glaring of these has been its effects on monitoring the decades long Israeli occupation—including documenting home demolitions, territorial disputes, and settlement growth. Lower-resolution imagery has forestalled efforts to challenge and verify human rights violations, especially in hard-to-reach areas such as the Gaza Strip, which has been under siege since 2007. For instance, high-resolution satellite imagery could be used by investigative teams such as Forensic Architecture to identify the exact point from which a fatal shot was fired at unarmed protesters.

Although the KBA legislation only applied to U.S. companies, the biggest players in the global market—firms such as Maxar and Planet, and online open-access points such as Google and Bing—are American. Even as foreign companies began producing high-resolution imagery during the 2010s, U.S. dominance meant that, in reality, the KBA was applied on a de facto global scale.

Despite instances of muted resistance to the two-meter limitation from tech giants such as Google Earth and Bing Maps over the years, as well as calls for the KBA’s revocation, there was, until recently, little attempt at reform. The censorship of satellite imagery over Israel and the occupied territories mutated into one of those seemingly immovable exceptions that define the Palestinian-Israeli dispute.

The KBA has also had an adverse impact on scientific research. Satellite imagery is a crucial tool for surveying and monitoring, and low-resolution imagery does not have the required level of detail for a discipline such as archaeology to track changes to heritage sites or looting pits. Similarly, climate change assessments frequently rely on data from satellite imagery, which has not been available despite the dangers posed by climate change to the region.

Taken together, these effects amounted to a deliberate blind spot created by the KBA, which directly prohibited the vital work of researchers, academics, and humanitarians.

The KBA was generally vague, but it stated that restrictions on satellite imagery over Israel would only apply so long as high-resolution satellite imagery was not readily available from non-U.S. companies. If foreign firms began to release more detailed images, the KBA-imposed resolution limits were intended to change continually over time to match the quality of those produced by non-U.S. companies. But they didn’t.

The problem became clear when a number of non-U.S. companies—beginning with French-owned Airbus in 2011—began producing and retailing high-resolution satellite imagery of Israel and the occupied territories. In fact, Israel itself provides free high-resolution aerial imagery of the territories it controls, simultaneously rendering the KBA pointless and belying the claim that it serves Israeli national security interests.

These advances have made the KBA anachronistic and obsolete for almost a decade. And although the KBA was supposed to be reviewed regularly, no formal review took place until 2017, with the result that technology has overtaken policy and U.S. firms have been disadvantaged.

This contradiction lay at the heart of the call to reverse the KBA. The University of Oxford archaeologists who identified this failure to reform, Michael Fradley and the late Andrea Zerbini, published a ground-breaking paper in 2018 calling for its reform. Their research explicitly demonstrated that the KBA was obsolete, since several non-U.S. companies produced the images which should have sparked reform and adjustment of the law’s limits.

These findings led to two years of pressure on NOAA, the Department of Commerce, and Congress. The demand was simple: Either allow U.S. companies to produce and disseminate high-resolution imagery of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, or declare the KBA obsolete.

Then, suddenly, during the Advisory Council of Commercial Remote Sensing meeting at the end of June, it was announced that NOAA had finally recognized that resolution imagery higher than 2 meters per pixel was available from non-U.S. sources to a maximum resolution of 0.4 meters per pixel, which would become the new restriction benchmark; NOAA may be required to drop to 0.3 meters when Airbus launches its new generation of satellites later this year.

The implications of this reversal are wide-ranging. Most obviously, U.S. technology companies will be more competitive against foreign companies. From a scientific perspective, the reform will result in a significant improvement in the ability to remotely monitor this environmentally fragile region. When it comes to climate change, high-resolution imagery will enable the more accurate detection of changes in vegetation, crop conditions, further spread of desertification (a key impact of climate change in the region), changes to water distribution, overuse of fertilizer, and pollution dumps—changes which are substantially harder to discern and record with low-resolution satellite imagery. For disciplines such as archaeology, it will help identify sites and monitor damage.

Significantly, the reversal empowers humanitarian groups working to hold Israel accountable for its violations of international law, including unlawful killings and settlement construction (which, under the fourth Geneva Convention, constitutes a war crime). It is perhaps for this reason that the KBA’s reversal has already caused some disquiet in Israeli military quarters. The reversal also has geopolitical implications. Satellite images of the border areas of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt have thus far been both down sampled and poorly covered (with many operators wary of capturing any Israeli territory). The change in legislation will provide uncensored images of these areas and allow for their monitoring and investigation, particularly around environmental issues such as water extraction.

Finally, from the perspective of historical justice and accountability, uncensored, high-resolution images enable Palestinians to accurately catalogue the remnants of villages and towns destroyed during the events of 1948 and beyond. The democratizing power of the reform will allow Palestinians to use technology to rediscover an erased past and to imagine an alternative future.

The reform of the KBA may have won the battle over commercialization, but declassification remains a separate battle altogether. Ensuring that archival satellite imagery of Israel and the occupied territories is rereleased at the correct resolution is the next frontier—indeed, it was a declassified image of the Dimona reactor (an Israeli nuclear installation located in the Negev desert) in the Israeli media that sparked the push for the KBA in the first place. Declassified British Royal Air Force photographs of Palestine taken from 1944 to 1948 have already shown the monumental changes to the landscape since then; declassified U.S. imagery from the latter half of the 20th century could reveal much more.

The role that technological advances can play in protecting human rights warrants scrutiny. Whether monitoring the persecution of the Uighurs in China’s so-called re-education camps, the ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas and other minority groups in Myanmar, or U.S. drone strikes in Somalia, satellite imagery has long been used by international advocacy groups, researchers, journalists, and civilians to document and monitor atrocities and war crimes.

The reversal of the KBA after 24 years has levelled the playing field and given those working towards freedom, justice, and equality a vital tool. However, monitoring alone can only go so far. High-resolution satellite imagery remains a means of pursuing accountability—not the end.

Zena Agha is a writer and a policy analyst at Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network