Airbnb courts controversy by taking down listings in contested West Bank area; Israel fumes

The world’s biggest accommodation-sharing website Airbnb triggered a controversial debate on Monday when it announced the removal of all Israeli settlement listings from the occupied West Bank. The decision, affecting some 200 listings, would take effect in the coming days, Airbnb said.

“We concluded that we should remove listings in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank that are at the core of the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians,” Airbnb said on its website, adding, “Our hope is that someday sooner rather than later, a framework is put in place where the entire global community is aligned so there will be a resolution to this historic conflict and a clear path forward for everybody to follow.”

How Israel responded

The move has been severely criticised by the Israeli government for being a biased approach to the conflict. Israeli Tourism Minister Yariv Levin on Monday even described the delisting as “the most wretched of wretched capitulations to the boycott efforts,” referring to the mounting BDS (Boycotts, Divestments, and Sanctions) effort all over the world.

Speaking on Israel’s Channel 13 television, he further complained that Israel had not been warned beforehand and would respond by backing lawsuits made by settlement listers. Egged on by the call made by senior government officials to challenge Airbnb’s decision, an Israeli settler who had advertised her West Bank apartment, filed a lawsuit against the company on Thursday.

Arguing that the decision represents a “grave, offensive and outrageous discrimination,” Ma’anit Rabinovich sued the firm for $4,000 for damages, citing that Airbnb continues to operate in disputed territories like Tibet and northern Cyprus.

How Palestine reacted

Palestinians, who have been displaced from their land for decades and have since lived in a perpetual state of war and militarisation, hailed the hotel-renting company’s move as a step towards peace, as have rights groups and activists leading the BDS charge.

Oded Revivi, mayor of the West Bank settlement of Efrat, however, told Reuters that delisting settlements directly contradicted Airbnb’s mission “to bring people together in as many places as possible around the world”.

“When they make such a decision, they get involved with politics, which … is going to defeat the actual purpose of the enterprise itself,” he rued.

How is the BDS movement working out so far?

Israeli settlements are considered illegal under international law, and pose obstacles to the Palestinian people’s goal to establish a state. Activists have been lobbying Airbnb to delist them for a long time. Should other companies follow suit, “this will contribute to achieving peace”, anti-settlement protestors believe.

The BDS movement, started in 2005 by over 170 Palestinian nonprofits in support of the Palestinian cause for boycotting and sanctioning Israel, is organised and coordinated by the Palestinian BDS National Committee.

Despite intense criticism and opposition, the campaign strives to bring about moments of reckoning for the Israeli government until it withdraws from occupied territories, removes the separation barrier in the West Bank, grants Palestinian refugees the right to return to their state, and guarantees full equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel.

The tussle over the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza strip is one of religious and strategic importance to Israel and a matter of statehood for Palestine. Some 500,000 Israelis encroach on land that has housed more than 2.6 million Palestinians since 1967.
US-sponsored peace talks have been stalled since 2014, with violent protests and suppression of rebels growing exponentially in the region. According to an analysis carried out by the Rand Corporation in 2015, a successful BDS campaign against Israel could potentially cost the Israeli economy $47 billion in ten years.

Human Rights Watch agreed, saying that it is an important recognition for Airbnb because “such listings can’t square with its human rights responsibilities.” “We urge other companies to follow suit,” the group said, adding that the move came just before the publication of a 65-page report on tourist rental listings in settlements, including by Airbnb.

Among popular BDS supporters are musicians Roger Waters and Lorde, author Alice Walker, countries like Luxembourg, Ireland, Spain, South Africa, besides several international banks and business enterprises.

Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius