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Airbnb tries to have it both ways on those ‘incredibly complex and emotional’ — and illegal — settlements

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Yesterday, a Haaretz piece declared in its title:

Airbnb Says It Suspends Implementation of West Bank Settlement Ban.

I was convinced that Airbnb had backtracked.

The article cited a Hebrew statement following a meeting of Airbnb officials with Israeli Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, in which Airbnb said, “Our policy will not be implemented.” And Airbnb ”will continue negotiations with the Israeli government”.

Then we get the reverse message.

Following the release of the Hebrew-language statement, Airbnb told Haaretz that it was “released in error” by staff in Israel and issued an English-language statement saying:

“We are here to meet with a variety of stakeholders and as a result of our meetings have an even deeper understanding that this is an incredibly complex and emotional issue.”

So, what is Airbnb actually saying?

A Hebrew Maariv article on the same issue stated in its title:

Airbnb company: We will continue to not advertise apartments in Judea and Samaria [sic], the reports were erroneous.

Subtitle:

After the Tourism Minister had announced that the company had decided to back track on its decision to not advertise apartments in settlements, Airbnb announced that the policy hadn’t changed at all.

This is maddening. I mean, I get that there can be some differences between Hebrew and English, not to mention those biblical annexationist “Judea and Samaria” terms for the occupied Palestinian West Bank, but how “incredibly complex and emotional” can this issue really be? What’s the story for real?

The Guardian said: 

The tourism minister, Yariv Levin, had said on his Facebook page that the firm “will not enforce its decision to withdraw proposed bookings from its website”. But Airbnb later said: “The information published earlier today was inaccurate.”

This seems to imply that Levin may have made it up, but Haaretz clearly stated that the Airbnb statement in Hebrew was issued.

I contacted Noa Landau from Haaretz, who referred me to her tweet, in which she posted the Hebrew statement from Airbnb, alongside their English update. Airbnb indeed declared at first that “the policy would not be implemented”. Here’s the Hebrew statement that Landau tweeted a copy of:

“Airbnb headed by Vice President Chris Lanahan held today in Jerusalem a meeting with the Tourism Minister Yariv Levin. At the end of the meeting Airbnb announces that the policy will not in fact be implemented. Airbnb will continue dialogue with the Government of Israel.”

Landau adds comments:

“And @Airbnb indeed released an English statement shortly after their initial Hebrew statement. Or should I say total spin. In the Eng version they basically say the implementation of their anti-settlement policy is just so ‘incredibly complex’ (and therefore not happening…)”

As well as:

“I emailed [Airbnb] VP asking about the difference. Did not receive a straight answer yet”.

I’ve looked at Levin’s Facebook video, still on his page at this time. Levin clearly refers to an Airbnb statement, saying (Hebrew, my translation):

The statement by the company Airbnb that it will not be implementing its decision to remove from its site the apartments which are located in Judea and Samaria, is an important step in the right direction. I will work in order to promote the tourism in Israel and break more records in terms of tourist arrivals to the land, and will continue to strengthen the tourism also to Judea and Samaria.

Let’s try to make sense of this.

Last month, Airbnb announced its policy against settlement listings, preempting a Human Rights Watch report by one day. That report, titled “Bed and Breakfast on Stolen Land: Tourist Rental Listings in West Bank Settlements”, highlighted the complicity of rental companies, especially Airbnb and Booking.com, in war-crimes. The report stated:

 “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”.

The latter is a reference to the 4th Geneva convention, article 49, prohibiting transfer of citizens to occupied territory. This is a war-crime under International Humanitarian Law.

Airbnb was apparently attempting to curb the negative implications of being involved in war-crime. After all, it doesn’t reflect well. So it issued a statement about it. The statement was tepid and hedged, very “complex and emotional”, I would say:

“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.”

Nonetheless, Airbnb did manage to condense the message into actual (intended) policy:

“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.”

Notice: “we should.” Not, “we did”, or “we will”.

This ambiguity obviously spelled out to Israeli officials that Airbnb was being weak and that it could possibly be coerced into compliance with Israeli criminality. Minister of Strategic Affairs (and Hasbara) Gilad Erdan called Airbnb’s decision 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.” The American Simon Wiesenthal Center, which describes itself as a “leading Jewish Human Rights NGO”, has called for a boycott of Airbnb for the policy, which it termed “anti-Semitism, pure and simple”.

Gilad Erdan wrote to five U.S. governors following the move and requested that they act against Airbnb’s decision: New York governor Andrew Cuomo, California governor Jerry Brown, outgoing Illinois governor Bruce Rauner, Missouri governor Mike Parson and newly elected Florida governor Ron DeSantis. Several days after the letter was sent, Rauner recommended to the Illinois Investment Policy to stop investing in the home-renting company.

In other words, Airbnb was feeling the heat. It was enough that Airbnb had declared its intentions to pull the listings, to unleash all Zionist hell.

But what did Airbnb actually do? Apparently, Airbnb did put a halt to listings in the occupied West Bank, but there seemed to be a serious confusion here. As Yumna Patel reported last week, Airbnb seemed to be preventing not only Israeli settlers, but also Palestinian hosts from listing their homes in the occupied West Bank. When attempting to list a property for rent in a Palestinian city in the West Bank, users were denied by the website, and given a message saying “country code is invalid.” When speaking with an Israeli Airbnb customer representative, the rep told a Mondoweiss reporter that the issue was not with the lack of a formal address for the listing, but that their listing in the city of Bethlehem was not being approved because they were in the West Bank.

When asked if it was a possible website glitch, and that Palestinian listings were accidentally being affected due to their proximity to settlements, the representative said “it is not an issue with the algorithm.”

Patel spoke to a customer service rep in the US, and received a similar answer: any listings coming out of the West Bank were not currently being approved by Airbnb’s website — regardless if the listing is in a Palestinian city, or in an Israeli settlement.

Once again, “incredibly complex”, and even emotionally troubling, I would say! Is Airbnb now blocking everyone in the West Bank, regardless of whether they are local indigenous inhabitants or invading war-criminals? This could not be the point of the policy change!

In any case, Airbnb’s policy was selective: It chose to alter policy on listings in the Occupied Palestinian West Bank, but not all of it – it would explicitly not change policy in occupied East Jerusalem. It would likewise not change policy in the occupied Syrian Jolan (known also as Golan). These are also territories which Israel had occupied in 1967, which Israel had annexed in contravention of international law, and in which it also commits the mentioned war-crimes.

Airbnb’s “complexity” results from its ambiguous attitude. It is trying to have the cake and eat it. On the one hand it seeks to distance itself from war-crimes, yet on the other it continues abetting them. And it is also throwing the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) under the bus, in attempt to save its image in Israel. In the Hebrew statement (cited in the Maariv article), Airbnb stated (my translation):

“Airbnb definitely opposes the BDS movement and is committed to developing its business in Israel, something that will enable tourists from all over the world to enjoy the wonders of the land and its people”.

This is cynical political manipulation. Airbnb knows that distancing itself from BDS may provide it some shelter from the reflexive Israeli accusations of anti-Semitism, terrorism and what not. And of course Israelis love to hear about their “wonderful land” – this is an “emotional issue” for so many people. But what Israel does with that land, it’s not so wonderful.

To be sure, Airbnb has made a step that Booking.com has not made. The latter has responded with roaring silence. The officials at Booking.com are perhaps looking at Airbnb and thinking how lucky they are – they kept their mouths shut and avoided the storm that has befallen Airbnb. Gilad Erdan has even recommended Booking.com since they did not pull listings in settlements. It is now surely up to individuals to show Booking.com that such complicity in crime does not go unnoticed, and boycott Booking.com.

But Airbnb– they have confused us good. Ambiguous statements, ambiguous policy, and now they will “continue negotiations with the Israeli government”.

Some will see this as a setback, in what appeared to be a win for justice. But there is a lesson here, and likely an own-goal by Israel:

Israel is playing an all-or-nothing game on BDS. Airbnb was ambiguous and played it half-hearted in attempt to not lose Israel – and that’s why it is losing this. The consequence is, that the game against Israeli criminality has to go all the way. You’re either for it or against it. And there’s a natural repelling mechanism at play here, generated by Israel itself. As I wrote last month, corporations are beginning to get that with Israel, it’s that 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’s how BDS works. Airbnb can distance itself all it wants from BDS, but that’s how it works.

Sitting on the fence can be an “incredibly complex and emotional issue”, until you get off it, and show what you really stand for. Then it becomes really simple. Some also say it’s an emotional relief.

H/t Ofer Neiman, Peter Andreas Ruben Bredsdorff

About Jonathan Ofir

Israeli musician, conductor and blogger / writer based in Denmark.

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3 Responses

  1. aginit
    aginit on December 19, 2018, 8:54 am

    Perhaps individuals should boycott Airbnb, and whole buildings in cities (e.g. Manhattan). Obfuscating the issue does not make Airbnb illegal in Palestine.

  2. Ottawa observer
    Ottawa observer on December 24, 2018, 8:24 pm

    The place a friend of mine stayed in in Ariel, last month is still listed on the AirBnB website:

    https://www.airbnb.ca/rooms/8470765?location=ariel%2C%20Israel&adults=1&guests=1&s=fIkzrx0_

    There are lots of other, too.

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