Airbnb made news in November when it declared it would remove its listing from illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian West Bank. This declaration preempted a Human Rights Watch report on Airbnb and Booking.com, where Booking.com kept its silence.
Yet, shortly after its announcement Airbnb met with Israeli government officials and announced that it would not be implementing the policy after all. It then issued a maddening set of contradictory statements, which amounted to it wanting to both have its settlement-cake and eat it too. As of this week, Airbnb has yet to implement its new ban policy, as Judy Maltz noted yesterday in Haaretz. In other words, Airbnb is profiting from war crimes, and hoping that it will be forgotten, while it obfuscates its criminality with contradictory statements.
The story continues. Yesterday, Amnesty International released a report titled “Destination: Occupation”. In addition to Airbnb and Booking.com, Amnesty also targets Expedia and TripAdvisor:
Digital companies are revolutionizing how the world does tourism. Corporations like Airbnb, Booking.com, Expedia and TripAdvisor, which dominate the multi-billion-dollar global online tourism industry, have become hugely successful. These companies all also list numerous hotels, B&Bs, attractions or tours in Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). They are doing so despite knowing that Israel’s settlements are illegal under international law, and a war crime.
Amnesty notes the hypocrisy of these companies when it comes to “ethical values” in no uncertain terms:
All four companies claim to operate under high ethical values and respect for the rule of law. However, none of these standards appears to influence the companies’ decisions in relation to settlement listings. In doing business with settlements, all four companies are contributing to, and profiting from, the maintenance, development and expansion of illegal settlements, which amount to war crimes under international criminal law. Their promotion of Israeli settlements in the OPT as a tourist destination also has the effect of “normalizing”, and legitimizing to the public what is recognized under international law as an illegal situation.
The report also goes further than the Human Rights Watch report, in that it notes how, even if Airbnb would finally apply its policy and pull out of West Bank Israeli settlements, it would still be a violator in East Jerusalem:
Finally, since the company [Airbnb] did not extend its delisting commitment to settlements in East Jerusalem, the company is and will continue to be involved in human rights violations associated with these settlements for as long as it continues to do business with them. (p. 79)
Judy Maltz notes that “the online property rental company has not explained why it made this exception” – but the explanation is simple – Human Rights Watch did not include East Jerusalem in their focus, so why would Airbnb even bother? Likewise, Amnesty included East Jerusalem, but not the occupied Syrian Jolan (Golan Heights). That too is occupied territory. So, there are layers of criminality here, and we are only scraping the icing of the cake.
Nonetheless, Amnesty is clear in relation to these companies and Occupied Palestinian Territories (including East Jerusalem):
‘To comply with their responsibilities to uphold international humanitarian law and respect human rights, Airbnb, Booking.com, Expedia and TripAdvisor must therefore stop listing tourist accommodation, activities and attractions in settlements or run by settlers in the OPT, including East Jerusalem.’ (p. 85)
Expedia and Booking.com respond
Amnesty managed to get two responses – from Expedia and Booking.com, which it published in an annex to the report (p. 92-93).
Expedia’s response first feigns innocence:
Expedia Group does not operate hotels, vacation rentals or travel products itself. We allow any accommodation provider to sign up to our platform in accordance with laws applicable to Expedia Group.
It then thanks Amnesty in what appears to be boilerplate customer-service:
Expedia Group is committed to providing transparency to our customers when travelling to disputed territories globally and we appreciate Amnesty International bringing its concerns on this complex issue to our attention. In the Occupied Palestinian Territories, we identify these accommodations as “Israeli Settlement” located in Palestinian Territory… The issues raised in your letter are an important input as we continue to assess the type of information we provide to our travelers.
Let’s not beat around the bush. This is not just about ‘information’ – it’s about withdrawing your listings. In any case, the claim that identifying a location as an “Israeli settlement” is exonerating, is confronted by Amnesty in the report section titled “Misleading advertising” (p. 77):
Allowing some properties and attractions to be listed as being in “Israel”, as Airbnb, Booking.com, Expedia and TripAdvisor do, not only deceives users, but also helps conceal information that can help reveal the illegal nature of the settlements. This can lead to customers inadvertently supporting illegal Israeli settlements. Describing them as located in an “Israeli settlement” or in “Palestinian Territories” is still only a partial truth. Users are still deprived of information revealing the critical fact that these properties have been built illegally on occupied Palestinian land. The failure to provide such important information is tantamount to misleading advertising, which is typically sanctioned under consumer protection laws.
Booking.com finally spoke, and like Expedia, started by claiming it is not involved in direct booking:
Booking. com does not buy or (re)sell any rooms nor does it operate as a travel or tourist agency.
Displaying shockingly bad taste, Booking.com continues on by promoting itself:
Our mission at Booking.com is to empower people to experience the world. The Booking.com website and mobile apps are available in over 40 languages, offer more than 28 million total reported listings, and cover more than 130,000 destinations in 228 countries and territories worldwide.
One would think that Booking.com copy pasted this from one of their advertisements. But this is serious – it’s an 96-page Amnesty International report with nearly 500 references, concerning violations of international law. This is no place to be bragging.
Like Expedia, Booking.com ends up claiming innocence because it writes “Israeli settlements”:
By marking properties concerned as being in ‘Israeli settlements’ we provide transparency to anybody looking (or not looking) for accommodations in these territories.
Right now, it is Airbnb which is taking the turn to keep silent, whereas TripAdvisor, with its wise-owl logo, is just playing the ostrich.
As we may have expected, Israel is ferocious. Maltz reports:
Minister Gilad Erdan said he had instructed the Strategic Affairs Ministry to examine the possibility of banning Amnesty personnel from entering and staying in Israel, saying the organization was promoting an anti-Semitic campaign. Erdan further said that he had approached the finance minister weeks ago with a request to end the organization’s tax benefits.
None of this is surprising. Although the Amnesty report is impressive, it is only a beginning. First we get the usual responses of trying-to-get-away-with-it from some companies, and silence from others; we get the usual hysteria from the Israeli government calling it anti-Semitic. But this is a process. It needs to result in action, which the companies will be unwilling to follow through with, since their complicity in crime is still assessed to give them profit.
Amnesty has made recommendations to the companies, as well as various involved governments (including Israel) and UN. Yet it has not made recommendations to consumers, as this is apparently not the mandate of Amnesty. But this is very much something that consumers all over the world need to be aware of. Since these companies are built on popular consumer participation, they can also be influenced by a consumer boycott. And that’s where you and me come into the picture.