The Christmas tweet from the International Space Station about Bethlehem that sparked a twitter controversy

To see blog with images click here.

What were the controversial tweets from the International Space Station about Palestine at Christmas?

A “twitter war” has erupted on the International Space Station (ISS) regarding the status of Palestine.  This war was observed by Palestinian activist, Joe Catron:

Joe Catron @jncatron · 8h Are they having an Israel-Palestine Twitter war on board the International @Space_Station … …

The ‘war’ started when American astronaut Terry Virts, a flight engineer, aboard the ISS tweeted on Christmas night “Silent (and cloudy) night in the little town of Bethlehem, #Israel”.

Astronaut Terry Virts’ tweet 25 December 2014

The astronauts’ tweet resulted in counter tweets from Earth correcting him, affirming that Bethlehem was part of Palestine, instead of Israel. For example:

Zaid Jilani ?@ZaidJilani  Dec 25

Bethlehem is in Palestine RT @AstroTerry “Silent (and cloudy) night in the little town of Bethlehem, #Israel

Ali Abunimah ?@AliAbunimah  Dec 25

.@AstroTerry Bethlehem is not in “Israel.” You may see the Earth from space but learn your geography.

@WeTeachLifeSir_  23h

@AstroTerry: “Silent night in the town of Bethlehem, #Israel” Bethlehem is Palestinian land. Stick to naming stars.

Ed Webb ?@edwebb  Dec 26

@AstroTerry Bethlehem is in the occupied West Bank, part of Palestine, not recognized as part of Israel under international law

A modified image of Virts’ tweet was added to include the names of cities in Israel and Palestine, thanks to some avid space enthusiasts.

Virts (aka #AstroTerry) did not respond to any of the counter tweets.

However, the debate reignited on December 27 when fellow American ISS astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore (aka #AstroButch and Astro_Butch) tweeted “Israel” #AstroButch.

Astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore’s tweet, 27 December 2014

The counter tweets by Palestinian solidarity activists included:

Michael Curry ?@mcurryfelidae07  Dec 27

MT @Space_Station: Palestine [sic] #AstroButch

Intifada ?@akhir_intifada  Dec 27

@Space_Station @jncatron Nice Pictures but others rightly pointed out it ain’t #Israel … that is #PALESTINE … we shall never forget!

Stewart Mills ?@StewartMills  7h

@Space_Station #astrobutch #astro_alex #palestine & #israel …

The supporting tweets by Israeli activists included:

InfidelChick ?@aroadwarrior1  6h

No one did so STFU Hamas loser “@bassem_masri: @Space_Station @HummusBandit | looks like Palestine if u ask me”

Expedition 42. (November 2014-March/May 2015) Pictured on the front row are NASA astronauts Barry Wilmore (left), commander; and Terry Virts, flight engineer. Pictured from the left (back row) are Russian cosmonauts Elena Serova, Alexander Samoukutyaev and Anton Shkaplerov and European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, all flight engineers. Photo credit: NASA/Bill Stafford

Neither Virts or Wilmore have provided any defence for their tweets claiming Bethlehem is part of Israel, instead of 1967 Palestine.

What have previous astronauts tweeted about Palestine?

On 24 July 2014, German astronaut Alexander Gerst (ask #Astro_Alex) posted photos of Israel and the Gaza Strip from space. He reported, “with sadness, that he could see rocket explosions over the region as he passed overhead at night”. The images as reported by Megan Gannon went “viral”.

Tweet by Alexander Gerst. Image of Gaza and Israel (left to right) (Top of image is Mediterranean Sea (black)(24 July 2014)

Astronaut’s View on Israel-Gaza Conflict: No Borders Visible from Space

By Megan Gannon, News Editor   |   July 25, 2014

Gerst said “We do not see any borders from space”. “We just see a unique planet with a thin, fragile atmosphere, suspended in a vast and hostile darkness. From up here it is crystal clear that on Earth we are one humanity, we eventually all share the same fate.”

See also:

Astronaut Spots Explosions over Israel and Gaza from Space (Photos)

By Megan Gannon, News Editor   |   July 23, 2014 04:31pm ET

Gerst returned to Earth from the ISS on the 10 November 2014.

What is NASA’s policy on naming controversial geographic locations (such as Israel and Palestine)?

NASA was originally established by the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 [Current Act 2010] as “the general welfare and security of the United States require that adequate provision be made for aeronautical and space activities”.

Accordingly, it should come as no surprise that NASA’s policy on naming controversial geographic locations (whether explicitly created or developed in practice) should accord with US Foreign Policy.

What is US State Department’s policy on naming Palestine and Israel?

Despite Virts’ and Wilmore’s aversion to using the word Palestine, it is not uncommon for the US State Department to refer to ‘Palestine’, for example:

On 17 December 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry referred to ‘Palestine':

“I’m confident that the people of Israel are as interested in peace as are the people in Palestine, in the West Bank, in Jordan, and in the region.”

On 12 December 2014, spokesperson for the US Department of State, Jen Psaki, Daily Press Briefing stated: “we support the aspirations of the Palestinians to achieve statehood. Obviously, that’s part of what would be negotiated through a peace process”.

The ‘Inspection of Consulate General Jerusalem’, Report Number ISP-I-11-34A, March 2011 emphasises its relationship with the Palestinian Authority in the Occupied Territories that has included …”A program to equip and train a Palestinian security force has readied 6 of a planned 10 battalions and helped build institutions that would be needed by a future Palestinian state.”

This is in contrast to US policy on Hamas, whereby: “U.S. Government contact policy rules out any dealings with Hamas, and travel of executive branch personnel to Gaza has been prohibited since late 2003.”

What is the US Congress position on Palestine?  

US Congress has a number of anti-PLO statutes, namely:

22 USC 2227Withholding of United States proportionate share for certain programs of international organisations. Section effective Oct. 1, 1985.

The section provides:

“none of the funds authorized to be appropriated by this part shall be available for the United States proportionate share for programs for Burma, North Korea, Syria, Iran, Cuba, or the Palestine Liberation Organization or for projects whose purpose is to provide benefits to the Palestine Liberation Organization or entities associated with it.”

22 U.S.C. ch. 61—Anti-Terrorism—PLO (1)

Section enacted 22 December 1987.

“The Congress determines that the PLO and its affiliates are a terrorist organization and a threat to the interests of the United States, its allies, and to international law and should not benefit from operating in the United States.”

In the wake of the Declaration of Principles (Oslo 1 Accord) signed in September 1993 the US Congress passed legislation for an opening US-PLO relationships see:

The The Middle East Peace Facilitation Act 1995 (S1064) (1), which:

authorizes the President to suspend for up to six months at a time specified provisions of law which prohibit foreign and United Nations assistance to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the receipt or expenditure of PLO funds, and PLO membership in the International Monetary Fund, upon certification to specified congressional committees that: (1) such waiver is in the national interest; (2) the PLO continues to abide by commitments made in letters to Israel and the Foreign Minister of Norway and under the Declaration of Principles signed in September 1993; and (3) specified funds provided under this Act and other Acts have been used for the purposes for which they were intended”.

What is NASA’s practice of naming Palestine?

Although, I was unable to locate NASA’s policy on naming controversial geographic locations, by searching NASA’s website I was able to identify the variety of naming practices to the region of Israel and Palestine.  My search identified the following references to Israel and Palestine:

  1. Reference to “Palestine”

Ironically, ‘Palestine’ is mentioned quite a lot on NASA’s website.  However, the reference to Palestine is Palestine, Texas.  Palestine, Texas is home to the NASA Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility.

Palestine, Texas was named for Palestine, Illinois, by Daniel Parker. It is said that “French explorer Jean Lamotte first gazed upon this region in 1678. He gave it the name Palestine, as it reminded him of the promised land of milk and honey, as written in the scriptures”.

However, finding references to Palestine (Middle East) on the NASA website is more limited, but includes the following references:

  1. GEMINI Earth photographs (S66-54893; Gemini XI)

The NASA caption reads: “Biblical and Near East students find much of value in this photograph. Sinai is at the center, Arabia to the right, Palestine and the Levant to the upper left, and Mesopotamia to the upper right.”

  1. GEMINI7 Shuttle Mission Imagery

S65-63849 (8 Dec. 1965) — The eastern Mediterranean area as seen from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Gemini-7 spacecraft. …The Dead Sea can be seen at top center. Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Syria are also at top center.

  1. Glenn Research Centre News– Nuha Nawash

NASA’s website identifies that Nuha Nawash, ASRC/Advanced Capabilities Project Office is from Palestine. Ms Nawash’s PhD She dedicates her PhD to her father, Khaled Abed, to her mother, husband Saleh and her children Ibaa, Hashem, Ahmad and Baraa.  Shed also dedicates her PhD, “to every Palestinian woman whose dream is to get her education and empower women all over the world”.

Nuha Nawash
  1. Biography of Caryn Kelly

According to NASA’s website Caryn Kelly who provides curriculum and teacher support to the Modeling and Simulation workshop for NASA’s Langley Research Center, Kennedy Space Center and Ames Research Center her biography states she has visited “Israel and Palestine”.

  1. Reference to “West Bank and Gaza”

NASA”s website refers to the West Bank and Gaza as distinct from Israel, see for example:

“The image shows the lands of Israel along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, with the countries of Jordan to the southeast and Syria to the Northeast. Jerusalem, labeled, is Israel’s capital city and Aman, labeled, is the capital of Jordan. The region known as the West Bank lies between the two countries. Running from north to south, the Jordan River links the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea.”(NASA, September 2000)

Note the caption also reads: “To paraphrase English author T.H. White, borders are the one thing a man sees that a bird cannot see as it flies high overhead. For the 15th consecutive day, differences in ideology have sparked violence and tension in the middle-east as the rest of the world watches, concerned.”

The map above shows the change in lighting intensity and location in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank, and Lebanon during the months of Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr versus the rest of the year. (Earth Observatory, ‘The Lights of Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr’, NASA, 2012-2014)

See also:

Dust over the eastern Mediterranean Sea’, 2013 [West Bank is labelled]

Dead Sea, 2006

  1. Reference to the “disputed West Bank of Israel”

NASA’s website also refers to West Bank as part of Israel.  See for example:

2002 image of Jericho refers to Jericho as:

“Located in the disputed West Bank region of Israel, it has been ceded to Palestinian control as part of recent treaty agreements.”

This third category of referring to “disputed West Bank region of Israel” would seem to be contrary to US Policy.

In contrast to NASA’s policy on naming conventions for Palestine, consider the UN General Assembly’s approach to naming convention of Palestine.

What is the UN General Assembly naming convention for Palestine?

Palestine has operated as a defacto member of the United Nations given its role as a permanent observer to the United Nations since 1974 .  This role is not insignificant as Palestine has the right of reply in General Assembly debate and it is permitted to speak at the UN Security Council.  Such rights formally are limited to UN state members.

The designation ‘Palestine’ for the PLO was adopted by the United Nations in 1988 in acknowledgment of the Palestinian declaration of independence.  The designation Palestine was recognized by 104 countries.

Palestine was recognised a non-member observer state of the United Nation by a majority of the United Nations General Assembly on 29 November 2012 (United Nations General Assembly Resolution (67/19) 138 countries voted in favour; 9 voted against).  The date of recognition occurred symbolically 65 years since the UN General Assembly Partition Plan of a Jewish State, Arab State and an Internationalised Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

[CBC News, Palestinian UN statehood bid gets thumbs-up, CBC News, Nov 29, 2012]

Palestine (albeit under belligerent occupation) meets the 4 grounds of statehood as identified by the Montevideo Convention of 1933 (Convention of Rights and Duties of States) . That is “the state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications:

(a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.”

Palestine has a permanent population of 4.1 million (GazaWest Bank).  Palestine has defined territory by the UN Security Council Resolution 242 which specifically defines territory occupied by Israel; including East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestine has a government.  The Palestine Liberation Organisation is the international representative of the Palestinian people and the Palestinian National Authority is elected by the people of Palestine.  The current President is Mahmoud Abbas and the current Prime Minister is Rami Hamdallah.

Since Palestine’s Declaration of Independence in 1988, Palestine has become a member of numerous international ’s membership in a range of international organizations that require statehood for membership. For example Palestine is a member of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (1) (2006), the Olympic Games Committee , the Group of 77 , Non-Aligned Movement, Economic Commission for Western Asia (ECWA) , the Organization of the Islamic Conference  and the Arab League.

The 29 November 2012 UN General Assembly resolution has led to Palestine becoming a member of UNESCO (2011).

Palestine and the International Criminal Court

Palestine has a unique status with the International Criminal Court (ICC).  Palestine attended the Rome Conference: Palestine attended the Conference as an observer.  Palestine was the only observer listed as an organzation.  And curiously in the order of annexes Palestine was the first political unit that followed the list of states.  On 9 December 2014, Palestine was formally granted observer status at The International Criminal Court (1).

What is Google’s naming policy on Palestine?

Google Search – In November 2012, the UN General Assembly gave Palestine the status of “non-member observer state”. This also had an impact for internet search engine giant, Google, that on 1 May 2013, changed the tagline on Palestinian edition of Google from “Palestinian territories” to “Palestine”.

The change, means now displays “Palestine” in Arabic and English under Google’s logo.

Using the word Palestine is controversial for some. Israeli policy is that the borders of a Palestinian state are yet to be agreed.

Jessica Lee, ‘Google Palestine: Is Google Taking Sides?’ 7 May 2013

Google edition adopts ‘Palestine’ , BBC, 3 May 2013

Google grants Palestinian statehood‘, Jerusalem Post, 3 May 2013

Google Maps – Google Maps refers to the region as Palestine and Israel.  The quick facts for Palestine state: “The State of Palestine is a de jure sovereign state in the Levant. Its independence was declared on 15 November 1988 by the Palestine Liberation Organization in Algiers as a government-in-exile Wikipedia”.

Image (above) of Palestine and Israel (Google Maps)

At a higher resolution, Google Maps identifies the 1949 Armistice Agreement line, thus emphasising the region that was formerly part of British mandate Palestine that was not conquered by Israel in the war of 1948. This region was conquered by Israel in 1967.

Bethlehem and the 1949 Armistice Line (Google Maps)

Adam Taylor, The 11 Most Controversial Places On Google Maps, Business Insider, 16 May 2013

Geographical renaming and the battle of ideas

The twitter wars occurring on the ISS about Israel and Palestine remind me of the maxim “History is written by the victors”, attributed to Winston Churchill, but of unknown origin.

One of the key acts of writing history is naming the geography.  As a way to consolidate power or create a nation state ideology (or mythology) a state may initiate a process of geographical renaming. Thus New Amsterdam becomes New York.  New Spain becomes Mexico. New Holland becomes Australia. Cadigal or Eora land becomes SydneyDutch East Indies becomes Indonesia. Taiwan becomes People’s Republic of China. Byzantium becomes Constantinople becomes Istanbul. Saint Petersburg becomes Petrograd becomes Leningrad becomes Saint Petersberg. Salem (1) becomes Jebus becomes Jerusalem (1) becomes Aelia Capitolina becomes Al Quds (1) becomes Jerusalem.  And in the case of Virts and Wilmore – ‘Palestine becomes Israel’.

However, Virts’ and Wilmore’s renaming of Palestine is historically and legally inaccurate.  The bulk of the world supports a state of Palestine with borders based on the 1949 armistice line that formed the defacto border of Israel on the 5 June 1967.

Given the immense political implications it is important that astronauts on the International Space Station take care in naming certain geographical locations of the Earth, such as Israel and Palestine. The naming of Palestine has a long history and it forms the basis for a two state solution of Israel and Palestine.  Its origins in recent times includes: the 1947 UN General Assembly Resolution 181(II) ‘The Partition Plan‘, the UN Security Council Resolution 242 (1967), the Declaration of Independence Palestine in 1988 by the PLO (that was recognized by 104 countries in the UN General Assembly), the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements (September 13, 1993 – The Oslo Accords I)

One can only hope that astronaut’s like Virts and Wilmore in the interest of peace and good will use names that reflect the current political and legal reality of geographic regions of controversial regions such as Israel and Palestine (or at least identify some openness to a different political point of view).




This entry was posted in News. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.