Palestinians are calling for a boycott of the web-based room-sharing platform Airbnb, blasting the company for allowing postings from residents of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
The outcry began in mid-January after news broke that Airbnb was allowing postings from within Israeli West Bank settlements — communities that international law deems illegal and that the United States government calls illegitimate.
The global political community overwhelmingly considers Israel’s presence in the West Bank to be an occupation. Nonetheless, roughly 600,000 Israelis now live in more than 230 communities in the region, enjoying full rights of Israeli citizenship — things denied to the roughly 2.6 million Palestinian residents, who are not allowed to vote in Israeli elections, are subject to a separate legal system, and regularly endure harsh treatment from government authorities.
“Anyone who stays in an Airbnb facilitates the commission of the crime of establishing settlements and therefore aids and abets the crime,” John Dugard, a former special rapporteur to the United Nations on Palestine, told the Guardian. “Same applies to making money from property built on illegal settlements.”
Some Palestinians have begun calling for a boycott of the company, and the Associated Press reported on Wednesday that Saeb Erekat, the senior Palestinian official who helped oversee the latest round of unsuccessful peace talks, sent Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky a letter this week insisting the company disallow listings from Israeli West Bank settlements.
Many of the roughly two dozen postings from settlers describe nearby cities such as Tel Aviv but omit that their residence is in occupied territory. Such sentiments are common among settlers who live east of the “Green Line” that separates the West Bank from Israel; residents often argue that their communities, which are supported by the Israeli government and protected by their military, are part of Israel, sometimes citing scriptures from the Jewish Torah as justification for their claim to the land.
Airbnb, which also posts listings in Turkish-occupied Northern Cyprus and Moroccan-claimed Western Sahara, refused to admit any wrongdoing this week.
“We follow laws and regulations on where we can do business and investigate concerns raised about specific listings,” a representative of the San Francisco-based company told CNBC. “We also encourage guests to communicate with their host about their listing long before a trip begins. Discrimination has no place on our platform and we investigate any claims we receive.”
The controversy thrusts the “sharing economy” giant into the middle of an ongoing international dispute over businesses that operate in the conflict-laden West Bank, where violent clashes between Palestinians and Israelis are increasingly common. Last year, the European Union sparked outcry from Israeli politicians after it issued new guidelines mandating that European importers emblazon agricultural products and other goods produced in the region with labels reading “made in settlements” instead of “made in Israel.” The United States has voiced support for such policies, much to the chagrin of the Israeli government: In December, the Israeli ambassador to the United States sent holiday gifts exclusively made in settlements to the White House along with a letter lambasting Europe’s labeling rules as “a new anti-Semitism.”
The U.S. State Department, however, continues to voice its historic opposition to settlements.
“We view Israeli settlement activity as illegitimate and counterproductive to the cause of peace,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said on Tuesday, referencing the belief that Israel’s continued support for settlements doomed recent peace talks. “The U.S. government has never defended or supported Israeli settlements, because administrations from both parties have long recognized that settlement activity beyond the 1967 lines and efforts to change the facts on the ground undermine prospects for a two-state solution. We are no different.”
The debate over Airbnb also comes on the heels of new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) decrying businesses who work in Israeli settlements and asking them to cease operations in the region. The 162-page report argues that companies who work out of Israeli settlements solidify their presence, making them complicit in the occupation and effectively stifling the growth of the Palestinian economy.
“Human Rights Watch found that, in the context of settlements, business activities contribute to and benefit from Israel's violations of Palestinians' rights and international humanitarian law,” the report concludes. “Because the violations are intrinsic to abusive, harmful, and long-standing Israeli policies and practices in the West Bank, the only way settlement businesses can avoid or mitigate contributing to abuses in line with their responsibilities under the UN Guiding Principles is by ending their operations in settlements or in settlement-related commercial activity.”
Sarah Margon, Director of HRW’s Washington, D.C. office, told ThinkProgress that Airbnb is one of several companies that effectively support occupation by operating within the settlements.
“Airbnb is playing a role by supporting the settlement real estate infrastructure — they’re perpetuating an illegal activity,” Margon said. “There is no way for a company…to do business in the settlements without violating the laws of occupation.”
Other groups have also begun taking a stand against companies who do business in the occupied West Bank. In June 2014, the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to divest money from three companies — Caterpillar, Inc., Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions — that provide Israel with equipment used in the occupation of Palestinian territory, and the pension board of the United Methodist Church decided earlier this month to blacklist five Israeli banks that fund settlement construction. Supporters of the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) movement to end Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands claimed both moves as victories for their cause, although church members insisted their goals differ from those of hardline BDS advocates.
Settlements receive financial support from more than just governments and businesses, however. An investigative report published in June by Israeli newspaper Haaretz found that a network of American nonprofits funneled more than $220 million to Israeli settlements in the West Bank from 2009-2013. Most of these groups claim a Jewish or secular identity, but a few are run by conservative Christians who believe Jews are entitled to the biblical lands “Judea and Samaria” — or how they describe the West Bank. The groups have historically enjoyed bipartisan support, but they — along with settlements broadly — have recently become a hallmark of America’s Religious Right: GOP presidential candidates Mike Huckabee, Jeb Bush, and Sen. Ted Cruz have all expressed explicit or implicit support for Israel’s existing settlement policy, and Huckabee even hosted a political fundraiser in a West Bank settlement in August 2015.
But Margon noted that while the issue of companies in settlements is a problem, the core issue of international business ethics is bigger than the Israel-Palestine situation — or Airbnb.
“I think companies have the ability to play a role in positive change,” she said. “It’s not just about governments to governments. Companies can conduct due diligence. This doesn’t just apply to issues in Israel-Palestine — it’s a global issue.”
Airbnb did not respond to ThinkProgress’ request for further comment.