By Elise Labott and Guy Azriel
If you've always wanted to travel through the buzzing streets of Tel Aviv, the cobblestone alleys and sacred sites in the old city of Jerusalem or view the extraordinary Baha'I gardens in Haifa, you can now do all of the above free of charge and without leaving your doorstep.
This week, Israel joined Google's ambitious street view service, offering computer users from all over the world a true-life experience of walking through several main cities in this Middle Eastern state.
"We have a lot of religious and cultural sites that speak to many faiths, like the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre , the Via Dolorosa and the Muslim quarter in the old city of Jerusalem" says Meir Brand, managing director of Google Israel. "These sites are precious and they have an emotional impact for billions of people all over the world. Many of those people don't have access or didn't have the chance to come and visit Israel. Our hope is that they see these treasures, the beauty of these, and that after they see and browse virtually from their pc or from their mobile, they are going to fall in love with the country and also come and visit".
While Brand believes the project could become a real tourist attraction and an important engine for economic growth not all Israelis are as thrilled with the new intrusive and detailed images generated by Brand's cameras.
In a country where security is paramount, some believe there service offers a convenient roadmap for terrorists to plan attack against Israelis.
Military intelligence expert Ron Ben Yishai says the information obtained by Google's cams could be very useful for many groups or individuals gathering pre operational intelligence.
This, Yishai says, is particularly true if terrorists make use of statistical weapons like rockets and missiles to hit a wide area. "(When) hitting in an area, you want to see how this area looks like, how many people are roaming in the streets in a certain hour of the day. and this they can get," Yishai said.
We asked Ron Ben Yishai whether he is comfortable with his house being available on the Google street view. "
"No. definitely not", he answers. "Not only with what I do with military intelligence, but if I say something that someone doesn't like".
“They can find your house now,” CNN asked.
"Not only can they find it,” Yishai says. “But also plan how to penetrate it and get me".
Side by side with security concerns also emerge various questions of personal privacy. While Google says it makes a real effort to blur out faces and license plates caught on camera lenses, valuable information on people's homes and surroundings is now easily accessible for all nonetheless.
Ido Kennan, an Israeli technology blogger says Google cooperates with Israeli authorities in blocking images of government buildings and strategic sites but does not give the same attention to the privacy of regular citizens.
Standing outside a prominent cafe in the heart of Jerusalem which was the site of a terrorist attack some ten years ago, Kennan points out on the screen of his laptop to the fact that footage of the establishment is available for all in various angles, while the residence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu located just a few hundred feet away is completely blurred out on the Google service.
"The government gave permission gave permission to take pictures of certain places in Israel. The interesting thing is if taking a photo of a street is open and not a security risk, why is this blurred, and if it is a security risk, why isn't my house blurred?" Kennan wonders.
The service also gives the user a close-up view to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. For instance, one can see the separation fence between Israeli and Palestinian neighborhoods. And when Google’s cameras were mapping Jerusalem, they caught a vigil for the kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, who has since been released.
All of the security checkpoints faced by Palestinians, however, are blurred.