Two Oxford archaeologists have contributed to the declassification of satellite images of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, with “huge implications” for visual access to the areas.

A 24-year-old US prohibition has restricted access to these high-resolution images. While most international satellite imaging is available to a resolution of 0.4-0.7 meters per pixel, the Kyl-Bingham Amendment (KBA) meant that US companies could not share – commercially or privately – images more detailed than 2 meters per pixel.

This is the difference between being able to make out the blurry outline of a block of flats to seeing clearly the people walking next to it. This has limited the detail in which archaeologists, climate experts, humanitarian groups, politicians, and Google Maps users can view these areas.

Two Oxford archaeologists – Dr Michael Fradley and Dr Andrea Zerbini – headed the pressure movement to overcome this. Their main argument was that the KBA should have been dropped already as companies like the French Airbus were already producing high-quality images, making the KBA invalid. Despite this, no moves were made to amend the KBA until Fradley and Zerbini’s research paper was published, limiting research due to US predominance in the field.

Fradley and Zerbini were involved in the Endangered Archaeology of the Middle East and North Africa Project. But the potential for the declassified images stretches beyond archaeology. Dr Fradley has called this development “a big win for science”, as it will affect many areas outside his own research.

Climate studies can monitor crop change, desertification, soil conditions, erosion, water tables, and pollution. Cultural heritage professional can assess looting, urban development, preserve heritage, and map sites. Politicians and humanitarians can monitor potential human rights abuses.

The original impetus for the KBA came after images of an Israeli nuclear ‘research’ plant, suspected by some to be a weapon-manufacturing plant, were released in 1995. Senator Kyl, a co-author of the KBA, said that instances like this could be used by “enemies of Israel… to target Israel for long-range attacks or assaults by terrorists”.

The head of Israel’s Defence Ministry, Amnon Harai, told Israeli media that their government is looking into “what exactly the intentions are” are the loosening of restrictions: “We would always prefer to be photographer at the lowest resolution possible. It’s always preferable to be seen blurred, rather than precisely.”

Reuters reports that Israel is worried about how Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Gaza’s Hamas militants could “plan rocket strikes on key civilian and military infrastructure” using commercial satellite imagery.

Zena Agha writes in Foreign Policy that the enhanced quality of the satellite images means Israel “can’t hide evidence of its occupation anymore”. Agha says that the restrictions were “implemented under the guise of protecting Israel’s national security”, but were actually “more an act of censorship”. Dr Michael Fradley tweeted his support of Agha’s article.

Dr Zerbini passed away from a rare form of cancer in July last year, before finding out that the restrictions had been lifted.

Image Credit to Axelspace Corporation / Wikimedia Commons. License: CC-BY-SA-4.0.