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 byproduct 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.