Opinion

How Airbnb's Settlement Ban Could Boost Israeli Tourism

Erasing the distinction between Israeli businesses and settlement businesses puts the entire Israeli economy at risk

The owner of Khan Eretz Ha'Mirdafim resort saws logs at the camp near the settlement of Alon, West Bank, November 20, 2018.
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

Monday’s decision by Airbnb to stop listing rental properties in unlawful settlements in the West Bank is good news not only for Palestinian landowners whose land has been stolen but potentially also for Israeli tourism. Perhaps one day Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who has threatened to restrict the activities of Airbnb in Israel, will realize that.

Airbnb said it would stop listing rentals in the settlements as part of a new policy on doing business in occupied territory that evaluates, among other things, the effects of its business activity on human suffering. The decision will remove around 200 rental properties in Jewish settlements which contribute to serious human rights violations. These properties stain the thousands of other Israeli tourism offerings which a succession of governments has insisted on lumping together with them.

>> Read more: Why Airbnb will have a hard time enforcing its ban ■ Settlement getaway? Here are the West Bank's weirdest Airbnbs

The case against the settlements is strong. It is a war crime for the Israeli authorities to transfer Israeli civilians into the West Bank. The authorities operate a two-tiered system there — one that discriminates against Palestinians, and another that benefits Israelis. They seize Palestinian land and give it to Jewish settlers; they set up checkpoints and roadblocks and issue military orders that restrict Palestinians’ right to travel. They provide settlers with land, water, infrastructure and financial incentives, while forcibly displacing Palestinians and preventing them from building on 99 percent of the state land under Israeli administrative control.

Global tourism companies like Airbnb and Booking.com, which earn revenue from listing homes in Israeli settlements, have contributed to making settlements economically viable. But that is contrary to the companies’ responsibilities under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The guiding principles require companies to avoid contributing to serious abuses of human rights and the laws of war, as a report published Tuesday by Human Rights Watch and the Israeli civil society organization Kerem Navot makes clear.

Airbnb’s decision will benefit Israeli tourism, unless Levin is foolish to enough to carry out his threat to retaliate against the company. Airbnb has been a boon for the industry, advertising thousands of rentals throughout the country and listing Tel Aviv as one of its 23 featured cities, together with New York, Paris, Buenos Aires and Tokyo. A survey by the Tel Aviv municipality found that 51 percent of tourists staying in the city booked their rentals via Airbnb.

Yet Airbnb’s listings in Israel are tainted by those in illegal settlements in occupied territory. Nearly half of the properties in settlement that were listed on Airbnb were falsely listed as being inside Israel. In other words, tourists wanting to stay in Israel could inadvertently find themselves in accommodations built on land that is stolen, off-limits to Palestinians and therefore inherently discriminatory. That prospect is becoming increasingly unsavory to the global audience of Airbnb, including the 150,000 signatories to a petition demanding that it stop listing settlement properties. Foreign investors in other industries with whom I have spoken have expressed concern that they can’t distinguish between settlement activities, which they don’t want to fund, and activities within Israel, leading them to consider divesting from Israel entirely.

The deliberate blurring of lines means that even some Airbnb hosts don’t realize they live in settlements. That confusion is the product of decades of Israeli moves to extend Israeli law to the West Bank and to separate many Israeli settlements from the rest of the West Bank with fences and walls.

This summer, I emailed the host of an Airbnb property in Hashmonaim, an Israeli settlement near Modi’in Ilit. I asked him why his rental was listed as being inside Israel, and he told me that Hashmonaim was not a settlement, that it is inside Israel. I clarified that Hashmonaim is part of what the Israeli government calls Judea and Samaria, in the Binyamin Regional Council, on land that was captured in 1967. He responded that Hashmonaim was not on territory captured won in the Six-Day War, that it was located inside Israel, about 5 kilometers from the West Bank. He was not the first settler I’ve run into who doesn’t know that he is one. He will realize his mistake when Airbnb stops listing his property.

While the current government may try to reinvent history, erasing the distinction between Israeli businesses and settlement businesses puts the entire Israeli economy at risk, by associating it with serious human rights abuses in the settlements.

Airbnb made the right decision to stop contributing to settlement abuses. Levin’s empty threats notwithstanding, delisting settlement properties from Airbnb will only bring economic benefit to the majority of Israeli users of the platform who host their guests inside Israel.

Sari Bashi is a Robina Foundation visiting human rights fellow at Yale Law School and a former researcher at Human Rights Watch.