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For Palestinians, Google's Small Change Is A Big Deal


By Emily Harris

Listen Now:
Sunday, May 19, 2013

The webpage Google.ps used to read "Google: Palestinian Territories." On May 1, the company quietly changed that regional search page to say "Google: Palestine."

Google didn't announce the name change, but it didn't have to. In a place where small gestures can carry great symbolism, Palestinians noticed right away.

"Everybody knows about it and they screenshot [and] post on Facebook: 'Yay Google, thank you,' " says Mohammad Kumboz, a 22-year-old graphic designer and computer programmer who lives in the Gaza Strip.

Kumboz knows having Google call Gaza and the West Bank Palestine isn't as official as the United Nations perhaps.

The U.N, over Israeli and U.S. objections, upgraded the Palestinians to a non-member observer state last fall. But Kumboz says that to him, Google's move is more meaningful.

"Google means a lot to us," he says. "[No day passes] without using Google."

That might be especially true for Kumboz.

He is part of Gaza Sky Geeks, an incubator for nascent IT businesses. It was started by Mercy Corps and is funded by a $900,000 grant from Google's charitable arm. So far, Kumboz has developed a game, called Mighty Cow, in which players help save a rather sweet-looking cow from the butcher's knife.

Google started funding the IT training program in Gaza a couple years ago after a chance meeting with Andy Dwonch. Dwonch is Mercy Corps' director of social innovations and previously ran Mercy Corps' work in the West Bank and Gaza.

"From the very beginning I thought there could be some potential partnership, but I really frankly didn't understand what made Google tick," Dwonch says. "I didn't necessarily understand what they were interested in."

Ultimately, Google's foundation funded a two-year program of training and support for Palestinians in Gaza who wanted to start their own Web businesses or learn skills to hire themselves out as programmers to companies anywhere.

Google has offices in a Tel Aviv skyscraper and just off the beach in the northern Israeli city of Haifa. Google employs a couple hundred Israeli engineers and looks for Israeli companies to buy. Google knows the territory, but Israel's Foreign Ministry thinks the company is misguided in its latest move.

"Google can do anything they want. They're not a diplomatic entity so they can do Google La-la Land if they want to and that's fine," says Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor. "Still, the question remains, this is a highly sensitive international politics issue, so what made Google decide they wanted to take a position on this?"

Google wouldn't talk about this, but the company put out a statement saying it was following the lead of the United Nations and other international organizations. It also provided several examples of other name changes.

Israel's deputy foreign minister sent a letter to Google CEO Larry Page, saying Google's move could hurt peace negotiations.

"I can tell you that it has no diplomatic meaning, and it hasn't," says Palmor. "But if people on the Palestinian side believe that they can get anything they want through unilateral steps by international bodies, well in that case they will be more reluctant to talk to Israel."

Ordinary Palestinians don't get to make that call. But as boys laugh and play online shooter games in an Internet café in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem in the West Bank, café owner Johnnie Skafi says Google pulled his "would-be nation" one more step up the ladder.

"Palestinian Territories means under the occupation," Skafi says. "Palestine [means] without occupation. That's what I think is the difference."

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