Airbnb, the online accommodations firm, announced on Monday that it would “remove listings in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank,” a move that will affect approximately 200 listings. The company’s decision follows a multiyear pressure campaign by organizations hostile to Israel. In acceding to this pressure, Airbnb has applied a double standard to the Jewish state.
Since 2016, American Muslims for Palestine, CODEPINK, Jewish Voice for Peace, the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation – since renamed the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights – and others have waged the “Stolen Homes” campaign to pressure Airbnb to remove West Bank settlement listings. In July 2018, Human Rights Watch (HRW) sent letters to Airbnb and Booking.com, a similar firm, encouraging them to exit Israeli settlements. Booking.com defended the legality of its listings, but Airbnb announced its exit just one day before HRW released a lengthy report examining West Bank listings by the two firms. The report proceeds from the premise that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are categorically illegal and constitute war crimes, despite a lack of consensus on the matter under international law. Airbnb seems to have prohibited West Bank listings to head off criticism stemming from the report.
The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has aided the pressure campaign against Airbnb. In March 2016, the UNHRC called for the creation of a yet-to-be-released “database” of companies operating in “Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem.” Airbnb was reportedly one of around 150 companies that received letters from the UN, threatening to add them to the database, which is effectively a settlements blacklist. Airbnb’s announcement seems to confirm that the UNHRC blacklist will serve as a tool to promote anti-Israel boycotts.
Palestinian officials also played a direct role in supporting the Airbnb campaign. In January 2016, the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Saeb Erekat, wrote a letter to Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky warning that his company is “effectively promoting the illegal Israeli colonization of occupied land.” Husam Zomlot, a Palestinian diplomat recently ejected from Washington by the Trump administration, said in 2016 that Airbnb was “promoting stolen property and land.”
Airbnb presented a five-point framework for assessing business activities in disputed regions, which guided its evaluation process. The framework calls for treating disputed territories on a case-by-case basis, consulting with experts, assessing possible safety risks, determining if listings contribute to human suffering, and evaluating a “direct connection to the larger dispute in the region.” The company said it expected disagreement with its decision, but made no effort to describe the evidence it considered, identify the experts it consulted, or otherwise bring transparency to its process.
Although Airbnb decided to delist homes in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, it continues to offer vacation rentals in a range of disputed territories. Currently, Airbnb does not operate in Crimea, Iran, Syria, and North Korea, where U.S. sanctions would present substantial legal and financial difficulties for the company. However, the company does offer listings in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, Northern Cyprus, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Tibet, and Western Sahara, all of which are subject to long-running disputes or ongoing conflict.
Airbnb has thus applied a standard to the West Bank that it fails to apply to any other disputed territory in the world. Moreover, the company’s decision did not suggest that it would delist properties in Palestinian areas of the West Bank, only Jewish ones. Accordingly, Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs Gilad Erdan said he would ask senior U.S. officials to hold Airbnb accountable for violating state and federal laws that bar discrimination and restrict boycotts.
David May is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSamuelMay. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.