The big story is that Airbnb announced its decision yesterday to pull its listings out of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, as Yumna Patel reported on this site.
The decision was announced just before a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report titled “Bed and Breakfast on Stolen Land: Tourist Rental Listings in West Bank Settlements” came out (today), which I will be referring to below.
Israeli responses were, as to be expected, ferocious. Minister of Strategic Affairs (and Hasbara) Gilad Erdan called it a “racist political stance”. Minister of Tourism Yariv Levin called the decision “discriminatory” and further described it as no less than “the most wretched of wretched capitulations to the boycott efforts”. Levin said Israel would respond by backing lawsuits by settlement listers against Airbnb in US courts, and added that he had already instructed his office to draw up measures designed “to limit the company’s activity across the country.”
We need to pause with that last statement, because it is central. Levin seeks to punish Airbnb by limiting its activities in ALL of Israel, although its withdrawal of listings was very selective: in illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, and it did not include East Jerusalem. We have not even spoken about listings in the occupied Syrian Jolan (known also as Golan).
In other words, while the company is responding to ‘selective’ pressure in certain areas (apparently due to concerted pressure concerning those areas), Israel responds with a potential punitive measure concerning its activities in the whole of the state, including all territories it controls. I will return to the greater meaning of this duality later.
Conflating Israel and occupied territories while fighting BDS
This conflation of Israel and territories it occupies has been central for Israel in its fight against Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS). Israel sought to catch two birds at one time: Demonizing BDS, while legitimizing its occupation. The first actual legislative measure by Israel on this head was its 2011 anti-BDS law, called “Law Preventing Harm to the State of Israel by Means of Boycott”.
The definition here was important:
1. In this bill, “a boycott against the State of Israel” is defined as: deliberately avoiding economic, cultural or academic ties with another person or body solely because of their affinity with the State of Israel, one of its institutions or an area under its control, in such a way that may cause economic, cultural or academic damage.
That formulation, “or an area under its control”, is central, and has persisted in US anti-BDS legislations in some 25 states. The point is that even a ‘selective boycott’ of illegal settlements is deemed part of a boycott of the whole of Israel.
Israel has been steadily trying to increase deterrence of BDS activism. Last year, a blacklist ban of 20 international organizations, including Jewish ones, was published and activists banned – even those who support that ‘selective boycott’. Last month, a bill entailing 7 years prison for BDS activists was being discussed in a Ministerial Committee for Legislation, yet apparently stopped there, for now.
There has long been an argument over tactics between proponents of ‘selective boycotts’ and proponents of more comprehensive boycotts. The former has been mostly proposed by ‘liberal-Zionists’. In 2016, Todd Gitlin, Peter Beinart, Kai Bird, Peter Brooks, Michael Walzer, Edward Witten, et al, authored a letter in support of such ‘selective boycotts’, which opened with a negative qualification:
“We, the undersigned, oppose an economic, political, or cultural boycott of Israel itself as defined by its June 4, 1967, borders” –
“Israel is not the problem, it’s the occupation and settlements that are”.
In response, Angela Y. Davis, Chandler Davis, Richard A. Falk, Rashid Khalidi, Alice Rothchild, et al, wrote:
“We welcome the statement’s shattering of the taboo against boycotting Israeli entities that are complicit in—at least selective—violations of Palestinian human rights.”
Yet they wondered:
“Defying common sense, however, the statement calls for boycotting settlements while letting Israel, the state that has illegally built and maintained those settlements for decades, off the hook.”
When Israel’s Supreme Court ruled on the anti-boycott law in 2015, the judges were somewhat divided as to whether selective boycott should be punishable. But in the end they voted 5-4 that even selective boycotts of settlements could be prosecuted through lawsuits.
Airbnb’s selective boycott and HRW’s report
So, Airbnb’s statement that it would withdraw listings in West Bank territory is selective. It is even selectively-selective – it could have said that it will withdraw listings in all settlements in all occupied territories – but it chose to relate only to the West Bank excluding East Jerusalem.
This selectivity also corresponds with the focus of the HRW report released today. Let me emphasize, that I am not criticizing HRW here for not referring to other areas than those in focus, but it is interesting to note how selective scrutiny can lead to selective action.
The HRW report also includes scrutiny of another company: Booking.com – which has not announced any policy changes as Airbnb did. From the HRW report:
“The business activity that Airbnb and Booking.com conduct helps make West Bank settlements more profitable and therefore sustainable, thus facilitating Israel’s unlawful transfer of its citizens to the settlements. In many cases, the companies list the properties as being located inside Israel, thereby misleading guests about where they will be staying and obscuring the fact that their payments are benefitting the settlement enterprise. Guests using Airbnb and Booking.com to book accommodations in “Israel,” thus may find themselves vacationing in an unlawful Israeli settlement in the West Bank.”
The report does not refer to East Jerusalem, although East Jerusalem is actually a part of the West Bank.
“This report provides information about 139 properties that Airbnb listed in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, not including East Jerusalem, at various times between March 22, 2018 and July 6, 2018, and 26 properties listed by Booking.com as of July 2018, with five properties cross-listed. It analyzes the status of the land on which those properties are located, including 17 properties built on land that the Israeli authorities acknowledge is privately owned by Palestinians but has been taken over for the exclusive use of Israeli settlers. An additional 65 properties are located on land that Israel declared to be public land through a mechanism that often includes what is actually private Palestinian land.”
In referring to the “unlawful transfer of its citizens”, HRW are referring to the 4th Geneva Convention of 1949, article 49. This is a war crime. This is customary International Humanitarian Law, which features in later central statutes, as HRW note earlier:
“Settlements are unlawful under international humanitarian law; the transfer of civilians of the occupying power into the occupied territory is a war crime under the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court (ICC), and Palestinian residents of the West Bank enjoy legal protections against forced displacement.”
Airbnb’s statement was tepid and hedged when it came to these issues:
“There are conflicting views regarding whether companies should be doing business in the occupied territories that are the subject of historical disputes between Israelis and Palestinians… Many in the global community have stated that companies should not do business here because they believe companies should not profit on lands where people have been displaced… We are most certainly not the experts when it comes to the historical disputes in this region… [we] evaluate whether the existence of listings is contributing to existing human suffering.”
Let’s not beat around the bush here: Doing business in Israel’s settlements is complicity in war-crimes. HRW has stated that clearly, and Airbnb knew that it would.
The Israeli response and the case for a complete boycott of Israel
The Israeli response to this limited move– which in our time and reality could be considered bold– shows that Israel will not have any ‘selective’ moves which challenge its occupation. It will have all or nothing. That is the policy.
And this should lead everyone else further. Israel is not differentiating between ‘Israel proper’ and its occupied territories in relation to how it views boycotts. Israel sees compliance with international law by Airbnb as a challenge to its criminality, and it will roundly punish those who seek to pull out of the more ‘contentious’ areas, even if they are ‘selective’.
For many, it is high time to go all the way: a full boycott of the State of Israel. It may be that there are companies who would view this as too extreme. That is not the point, though. The point is, that corporations are beginning to get that, with Israel, it’s an all-or-nothing game. That is, when you enter the Israeli market, you are forced to be non-selective, and effectively become complicit in war-crimes, no matter what you do. If you try to be ‘selective’ about that, the state will punish you. Hence, business people will start calculating whether this is worth it, and they will increasingly view Israel as a liability – as a whole.
That is how BDS works. And the Israeli Minister of Tourism has now unwittingly become one of its most prominent promoters.
H/t Danielle Ravitzki
Postscript: After the drafting of this piece, it came to my attention that the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which calls itself a “leading Jewish Human Rights NGO”, has called for a boycott of Airbnb for its actions. They call it “anti-Semitism, pure and simple”, because this is ostensibly forcing Israel back to its “Auschwitz borders”: “To be clear, no Israeli leader, left, right, or center, would ever return to the indefensible ‘Auschwitz borders,’ a term coined by the founder of Israel’s peace movement, the late Israeli Foreign Minister, Abba Eban.” Apparently, “Jewish human rights” are very different to universal human rights. They are exclusively Jewish, and any challenging of them is anti-Semitic and Nazi.