An israeli settlement in the West Bank, Maale Adumim, under construction in early 2017.
Photo: Oded Balilty (AP)

Hospitality giant Airbnb has begun removing about 200 listings for rentals in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Haaretz reported on Monday, with Israeli officials immediately denouncing the company and warning of potential measures to restrict its operations in Israel.

In a blog post announcing the listing removals, Airbnb said that it was backing off of its prior stance that it would allow listings in the disputed West Bank “as allowed by law,” saying that it did so because “we believe that people-to-people travel has considerable value and we want to help bring people together in as many places as possible around the world.” Airbnb wrote that as it has expanded to 191 countries and 81,000 cities, it must consider its impact and, to do so, has “developed a framework for evaluating how we should treat listings in occupied territories.”

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Airbnb added in its blog post that Israel’s West Bank settlements sit at “the core of the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians.” While the settlements are considered illegal under international law, Israel’s government firmly disagrees with that assessment.

Factors considered during its evaluation of offering listings in West Bank settlements include consultation with “a range of experts and our community of stakeholders,” Airbnb wrote, as well as assessment of safety risks and “whether the existence of listings is contributing to existing human suffering.” The company added that this new process resulted in their decision to remove the listings in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, writing, “We know that people will disagree with this decision and appreciate their perspective.”

Airbnb’s move came a day before Human Rights Watch released a 65-page report detailing the company’s activities in the West Bank. The report outlines the political situation in the region, identifies the available listings on Airbnb as well as Booking.com, and in some cases tracks down the Palestinians who owned the property before it was occupied by Israel. From Human Rights Watch:

Airbnb and Booking.com for example list rentals in the Ofra settlement, northeast of Ramallah. One Airbnb listing is on a parcel that the Israeli Civil Administration, the Israeli military branch in charge of civilian affairs in the West Bank, lists as belonging to the family of Awni Shaaeb, a 70-year-old resident of the adjacent Palestinian village of Ein Yabroud. Shaaeb told Human Rights Watch that Israeli settlers began to seize the land in 1975 to establish Ofra. Aerial photos obtained by Kerem Navot show that rental property on his land now listed on Airbnb was built in 2006 or 2007.

Shaaeb said he has never been given the opportunity to consent to rentals on his land or profited from them. Despite being a US citizen who lived in the US for more than three decades, Shaaeb cannot enter Ofra to visit the rental property because he holds a Palestinian ID. “For someone to occupy your land, that’s illegal,” he said. “For someone to build on your land, rent it out, and profit from it – that is injustice itself.”

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Israel has had de facto control of the West Bank since the 1967 Six-Day War, and the territory remains under the control of a military regime. The settlements that followed the military occupation are considered illegal under the Geneva Conventions by the vast majority of the international community. However, hundreds of thousands of Israelis, some of whom purport to have a divine right to the land, have moved into the West Bank. Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli government has become increasingly bullish about expanding settlements. Netanyahu has said those in the West Bank will remain permanent.

According to the New York Times, Airbnb’s decision has caused an “immediate uproar” in Israel, with tourism minister Yariv Levin calling for punitive measures in response. The Times writes:

Israel’s tourism minister, Yariv Levin, called on Airbnb to rescind its “discriminatory decision,” which he called “a disgraceful surrender.” He said he had ordered his office to come up with immediate measures to limit the company’s activity throughout the country, without elaborating.

Referring to the West Bank by its biblical names, Mr. Levin said he had also instructed his ministry to promote a program to encourage tourism and accommodation in vacation apartments throughout Judea and Samaria.

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Eugene Kontorovich, a George Mason University professor and international law expert with the Kohelet Policy Forum, a conservative Israeli think tank, told the Times, “Airbnb’s approach of singling out Jews from all the disputes in the world will put it at odds with U.S. state B.D.S. laws and principles of discrimination.” He added that Airbnb had been “bullied” by the United Nations Human Rights Council, which officials in both Netanyahu’s and Donald Trump’s administrations have sought to portray as unfairly biased against Israel. The Times added that settler leaders have called the decision “anti-Semitic.”

According to the Times, top Palestinian diplomat Saeb Erekat said Airbnb’s decision was an “initial, positive step.” But per Haaretz, he also expressed his opinion that Airbnb should have included East Jerusalem, which Israel also occupied in 1967 and effectively annexed in 1980 in a decision also widely considered a violation of international law by the international community.

“We reiterate our call upon the UN Human Rights Council to release the database of companies profiting from the Israeli colonial occupation,” Erekat said, according to Haaretz.

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Arvind Ganesan, Human Rights Watch’s business and human rights director, told the Associated Press that the delistings are “an important recognition that such listings can’t square with [Airbnb’s] human rights responsibilities.”

He added, “For two years, Human Rights Watch has spoken with Airbnb about their brokering of rentals in West Bank settlements that are illegal under international humanitarian law and for which Palestinian ID holders are effectively barred from entering.”

Gizmodo has reached out to Airbnb for comment, and we’ll update this post if we hear back.

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[Haaretz/New York Times via Engadget]