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Airbnb withdrawal from illegal Israeli settlements met with both fury and delight Open in fullscreen

Ben Lynfield

Airbnb withdrawal from illegal Israeli settlements met with both fury and delight

Nof Ofra bed and breakfast advertised on Airbnb in the settlement of Ofra [Getty]

Date of publication: 23 November, 2018

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Airbnb says it opted to remove listings 'that are at the core of the dispute' between Israelis and Palestinians, but the decision received mix responses from hosts, writes Ben Lynfield.
Israeli tourism minister Yariv Levin has vowed to "limit" Airbnb activities throughout the country in retaliation to the company's decision to stop listing properties on Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

But not all Israelis think that's a good idea, including left-wingers and some among the 22,000 Airbnb hosts in Israel

"If you have a policy of discrimination against Israelis you can't earn money in Israel," Levin thundered in response to the Tuesday decision, which effects about 200 listings on settlements considered illegal by most of the international community.

Read also: Airbnb: Fancy a holiday in an illegal Israeli settlement?

While Palestinian leaders welcomed the move as a step in the right direction, Levin termed it a "disgraceful surrender" to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement [BDS] which seeks to isolate Israel for its continued occupation of Palestinian land.

Esther Hecht, an Israeli writer and translator who with her husband rents a guest room in West Jerusalem, criticised Levin.

"Airbnb is a big part of the Israeli economy and Levin should think very carefully about what he says and does in relation to this," she said, adding that ninety eight percent of her guests come through Airbnb.

"It's really all of my business. Airbnb and businesses like that make it possible for people with limited budgets to come to Israel. If the minister wants to cut back, than he is chasing away a sector of the tourism market. He'll cut the branch he is sitting on." 

Asked if she is willing to lose business for the sake of settlers, Hecht responded: "Hell no. I'm opposed to the occupation and this is a consequence of the occupation."

But she also criticised Airbnb for singling out Israel while ignoring other problematic places. "Israel is being held to a different standard," she said

Airbnb, in announcing its move, said that after consultations it had opted to remove listings "that are at the core of the dispute" between Israelis and Palestinians. In taking the decision, the company said it had evaluated, among other things, "whether the existence of the listings is contributing to existing human suffering."

Read more here: Airbnb to pull out from Israeli West Bank settlements

A spokesman for the company said that the ban does not apply to listings in East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights, both of which were also occupied by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war.

Israeli settlements are considered illegal under international law and major roadblocks to peace, as they are built on land Palestinians see as part of their future state
Around 400,000 Israelis live in West Bank settlements [Getty]

Israeli settlements are considered illegal under international law and major roadblocks to peace, as they are built on land Palestinians see as part of their future state.

Around 400,000 Israelis live in West Bank settlements, which range in size from tiny hamlets to large towns. A further 200,000 live in settlements in occupied East Jerusalem.

Gaby Lasky, a lawyer and former Tel Aviv city councilor for the left-wing Meretz party, said she did not think Levin actually has much legal basis to limit Airbnb's activities in Israel.

"I think it's Airbnb's moral right not to want to advertise apartments in the territories," Lasky said.

Levin was quoted by the Times of Israel website as saying his ministry had contacted the finance ministry, urging it to "impose a special and high tax" on Airbnb activities. But the minister said the tax would not be imposed on the renters themselves, leaving it unclear which part of Airbnb's business would be targeted.

In contrast to Levin, Kristel and Tariq Elayyan, a Jerusalem couple who host guests at an apartment in the West Bank town of Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem, are delighted with Airbnb's new policy.

In the past they shunned Airbnb because it "gave settlers a platform to rent out their homes on stolen property," Kristel, a native of Holland, said.

She added that this was particularly troubling because her husband's family lost land to the settlement of Gilo in occupied East Jerusalem.

The Bikta Bakerem bed and breakfast in the West Bank outpost of Esh Kodesh, is one of the many advertised on the Airbnb site [Getty]

"It would have felt very strange to use the same platform that settlers are using while my family is the one losing its land. We decided that morally it's not something we want to do."

Now, however, "We can actually consider Airbnb. At least there's an opening to give it a thought.

"It's the only right choice they could make," she said of Airbnb's dropping of the settlers.

"We all know the settlements are illegal under international law. I live here and I see how day to day the land of Palestinians is taken away to build settlements. The settlers shouldn't be able to exploit and make money on land that was never theirs in the first place."

I live here and I see how day to day the land of Palestinians is taken away to build settlements. The settlers shouldn't be able to exploit and make money on land that was never theirs in the first place

Airbnb is vastly popular in Tel Aviv, with a survey by the municipality last year showing that the number of rooms rented in the coastal city through Airbnb is equal to the number of hotel and hostel rooms combined.

In other big cities, about a third of visitors rent through Airbnb. Demand will increase even more as Tel Aviv hosts the 2019 Eurovision contest in May.

Still, the platform lost at least one of its Tel Aviv hosts with its West Bank decision.

Michael Freedman, an entrepreneur with four listings on Airbnb, decided to delist over the company's banning of settlements.

"They are playing with politics when they ought not to. The fact that they are doing it very selectively with Israel puts them in breach of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, namely the holding of Israel to higher standards than other nations," Freedman said.

Although he depends heavily on the Airbnb money, Freedman will do without it on principle.

"Until they come up with a nuanced policy I can't give them the income," he added.


Ben Lynfield is a journalist currently based in Jerusalem.

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