Airbnb's decision to remove any properties situated in illegal Israeli settlements was announced a day before Human Rights Watch (HRW) was due to release a damning report into the company's complicity in the dispossession of Palestinians.
HRW's 65-page report "Bed and Breakfast on Stolen Land: Tourist Rental Listings in West Bank Settlements" painted a damning picture of Airbnb's policy, accusing it and other platforms such as Booking.com of effectively supporting Israel's illegal settlement policy. The report explained that:
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.
The report investigated 139 listings located on Israeli settlements across the occupied West Bank (not including East Jerusalem) and found that 17 of the properties listed were "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," HRW added.
That the report was released today has led to speculation that Airbnb announced it would remove its settlement listings as a pre-emptive move to limit the damage to its reputation and profits. Sarah Leah Whitson, head of HRW's Middle East and North Africa Division, wrote on Twitter: "On eve of @HRW report of human rights harms of #Airbnb business in settlements, company announces it will remove all settlement listings. This is the right outcome. Kudos."
In a statement on its website yesterday, Airbnb – an online holiday home portal – said that: "We [have] 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."
The statement claimed that while "US law permits companies like Airbnb to engage in business in these territories, at the same time many in the global community have stated that companies should not do business [in the occupied West Bank] because they believe companies should not profit on lands where people have been displaced."
Airbnb admitted that "we are most certainly not the experts when it comes to the historical disputes in this region", but stressed that in light of significant opposition to its policy of allowing illegal settlements to be listed on its site in recent years, it had "spent considerable time speaking to various experts" and reached out to "our community for their thoughts" before reaching yesterday's conclusion.
The decision has sparked strong reactions from both the Israeli and Palestinian camps. Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), applauded the decision, but said that it did not go far enough. He explained:
While we believe that this is an initial positive step, it would have been crucial for Airbnb to follow the position of international law that Israel is the occupying power and that Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including occupied East Jerusalem, are illegal and constitute war crimes.
For its part Israel has responded vehemently, almost immediately restricting Airbnb's operations across the country and labelling the organisation racist. Security Minister Gilad Erdan claimed that "national conflicts exist throughout the world and Airbnb will need to explain why they chose a racist political stance against some Israeli citizens," Haaretz reported.
Erdan also called on Airbnb hosts harmed by the decision – thought to amount to 200 listings across the occupied West Bank – to file lawsuits against the company. These lawsuits would be filed in accordance with Israel's anti-boycott law approved in 2011, which allows individuals or organisations to sue for damages caused by the boycott.
Since it occupied the West Bank in the Six Day War of 1967, Israel has pursued a continuous policy of illegal settlement. These settlements are illegal under Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prevents the transfer of civilian populations into occupied territory.