JERUSALEM - The decision by Airbnb to stop listing properties in unlawful Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank is a positive step that other global tourism companies should follow, Human Rights Watch and Kerem Navot said in issuing a report Tuesday about the activities of Airbnb and Booking.com in settlements.
The 65-page report, "Bed and Breakfast on Stolen Land: Tourist Rental Listings in West Bank Settlements," traces the status of the land on which rental properties were built. Human Rights Watch and Kerem Navot evaluated how Airbnb and Booking.com contribute to making settlements sustainable economically and benefit from the serious rights abuses and entrenched discriminatory practices stemming from the settlements. Israelis and foreigners may rent properties in settlements, but Palestinian ID holders are effectively barred – the only example in the world the organizations found in which Airbnb hosts have no choice but to discriminate against guests based on national or ethnic origin.
"By delisting rentals in illegal settlements off-limits to Palestinians, Airbnb has taken a stand against discrimination, displacement, and land theft," said Arvind Ganesan, business and human rights director at Human Rights Watch. "The continued business activities of Booking.com and other companies in settlements contribute to entrenching a two-tiered discriminatory regime in the West Bank."
Airbnb's anti-discrimination policy forbids discrimination based on national origin in the United States and European Union, but permits it elsewhere, when domestic law allows it. In the West Bank, Airbnb had been acquiescing to a policy under which a Palestinian landowner cannot even pay to stay in a home built on their own land, let alone use their land for development.
In order to comply with their responsibilities under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, Human Rights Watch and Kerem Navot believe Booking.com should follow Airbnb's lead and stop listing properties in settlements.
The groups reviewed Israeli and Palestinian land records, visited three settlement properties listed on Airbnb, and requested comment from 12 Airbnb and Booking.com hosts. The organizations also traveled to several Palestinian villages near settlement properties, interviewing five officials, two lawyers, and seven residents whose land had been taken over by settlements. The report also reflects responses received from Airbnb and Booking.com.
Airbnb listed at least 139 properties in settlements, excluding East Jerusalem, between March and July 2018. Booking.com had 26 as of July 2018. Seventeen are on land Israeli authorities acknowledge is privately owned by Palestinians, but has been taken over for the exclusive use of Israeli settlers, and 11 are in settlements established without Israeli army authorization, making them also illegal under Israeli law. All Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory are illegal under international humanitarian law.
Airbnb and Booking.com for example list rentals in the Ofra settlement, northeast of Ramallah. One Airbnb listing is on a parcel that the Israeli Civil Administration, the Israeli military branch in charge of civilian affairs in the West Bank, lists as belonging to the family of Awni Shaaeb, a 70-year-old resident of the adjacent Palestinian village of Ein Yabroud. Shaaeb told Human Rights Watch that Israeli settlers began to seize the land in 1975 to establish Ofra. Aerial photos obtained by Kerem Navot show that rental property on his land now listed on Airbnb was built in 2006 or 2007.
Shaaeb said he has never been given the opportunity to consent to rentals on his land or profited from them. Despite being a US citizen who lived in the US for more than three decades, Shaaeb cannot enter Ofra to visit the rental property because he holds a Palestinian ID. "For someone to occupy your land, that's illegal," he said. "For someone to build on your land, rent it out, and profit from it – that is injustice itself."
An additional 81 Airbnb and Booking.com properties are on land Israel declared to be public through a system that often includes what is actually private Palestinian land. Israeli authorities not only distribute "public" land to Israeli civilians in the West Bank, which violates international humanitarian law, but also do so in a way that discriminates against Palestinians, allocating 99.75 percent of state land in the 60 percent of the West Bank under its direct control for Israeli civilian use and just 0.25 percent for use by Palestinians.
As of July, 76 Airbnb and Booking.com listings in the occupied West Bank were falsely listed as being located inside Israel.
"Airbnb and Booking.com are listing properties not only in West Bank settlements that are illegal under international humanitarian law, but also in far-flung outposts that in addition are illegal under Israeli law, with some mislabeled as located in Israel," said Dror Etkes, director of Kerem Navot. "Guests thinking they are booking a stay in Israel can very well find themselves vacationing in an unlawful settlement in the West Bank."
Airbnb's global policy director told Human Rights Watch, in response to an inquiry about its policies, that the company does not hold hosts responsible for access restrictions imposed by government authorities, comparing the situation to one in which a government denies a visa to a prospective guest.
Palestinians, though, are not foreigners, but the local population whose interests and welfare the laws of occupation are designed to protect. Instead, they find themselves displaced and discriminated against.
Booking.com said that it only provides a platform for making properties available, which does not amount to supporting settlements. However, that activity contributes to the economic viability of settlements and to the perception that they are legitimate. Neither company can mitigate or avoid contributing to the serious rights abuses inherent in the settlement enterprise, because the activities they conduct take place on unlawfully seized land and under conditions of discrimination that effectively prevent them from renting properties to Palestinian residents of the West Bank.
Both companies have partially corrected the mislabeling of listings as being in Israel. But even if all listings were labeled accurately, Airbnb and Booking.com would still fail to meet their obligations under the UN Guiding Principles. Human Rights Watch and Kerem Navot believe that the only way for Airbnb and Booking.com to comply with their human rights responsibilities is to stop listing properties in settlements.
"No company can claim to be a social justice or anti-discrimination leader and profit from listings on land stolen from a people under occupation who are themselves barred from staying there," Ganesan said. "Airbnb's promise that you can 'belong anywhere' has for too long excluded West Bank Palestinans."
Excerpts from Tourist Listings in Unlawful Israeli Settlements in the West Bank
"We are often asked: Western or East Jerusalem? Answer: Western. There are no arabs [sic] here." – Airbnb listing in occupied East Jerusalem
"Looking for a personalized experience of Israel off the beaten track?... situated in the 'Gallilee of Jerusalem,' amidst vineyards, orchards and natural springs… we host couples for overnight stays, intimate boutique events[, and] unique workshops." – Airbnb listing in an Israeli outpost, illegal under both international and Israeli law
"This air-conditioned villa features 4 bedrooms, a cable flat-screen TV and a kitchen with a dishwasher and an oven… guests are welcome to take advantage of a hot tub. A car rental service is available at this property." – Booking.com
"One of the newer developments in Jerusalem and you will find tons of local families in the area. There are parks located all around you and friendly Jewish neighbors at each turn." – Airbnb
"Boutique House in center of Israel." – Airbnb
"The apartment is ideal for couples, solo adventurers, business travelers and families (with kids)… in a perfect location to explore Israel." – Booking.com
"I am offering a detached cottage in our beautiful garden located in a gated community in the Biblical Judean Hills... a unique personal touch, such as organic cotton sheets, option of vegan or vegetarian breakfast. Local produce used, including self grown fruit and herbs in season." – Airbnb