Two Palestinians are to sue Israeli settlers who listed their stolen West Bank property on Airbnb.
The pair – Ziad Alwan and Randa Wahb – plan to take the case to a US court as a counterclaim against the settlers, who had previously filed a lawsuit against Airbnb over its decision to remove listings located in Israel's illegal West Bank settlements, the Electronic Intifada (EI) reported.
Alwan and Wahb are being represented by the Centre for Constitutional Rights, which filed the lawsuit in federal court in the US state of Delaware – where Airbnb is incorporated – earlier this week. According to the centre, the lawsuit argues that "the Israeli settlers who sued Airbnb have participated in war crimes by aiding in Israel's seizure of land in occupied Palestinian territory, including the specific lands on which the Airbnb properties stand".
The centre's staff attorney, Diala Shamas, said: "The settlers who sued Airbnb are cynically using the language of discrimination in order to further their own unlawful ends," referring to the fact that the settlers claim Airbnb is discriminating against them under the Fair Housing Act, a US law that guarantees people access to housing regardless of their race, ethnicity or religion.
She added: "Our clients' experiences – Palestinians who are directly affected by these settlers' actions – show where the real discrimination and illegality lies."
Electronic Intifada also pointed out that Alwan "has a registration document showing that the land on which the settlers are running a bed and breakfast is registered in his father's name." Alwan told the US-based news site: "I am filing this lawsuit in my father's memory, and for my own children, whom I've taught to never forget that this land is rightfully theirs. Anyone looking at the facts can tell that we are the rightful owners of this land, no matter how the settlers try to spin it."
The pair are being joined in the lawsuit by two towns in the occupied West Bank – the municipality of Anata, just east of Jerusalem near Israel's Separation Wall, and the village council of Jalud, south of Nablus off Route 60 – because the settlers' property is built on their land.
The debate surrounding Airbnb has been raging since November, when the online holiday rental portal announced that it would no longer allow listings which are located in Israel's illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank.
In a statement, Airbnb said: "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." It added 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."
The decision was applauded by Palestinian commentators and seen as "an initial positive step", but was immediately attacked by Israel. Tel Aviv quickly restricted Airbnb's activities in the country and labelled the organisation racist, saying it would "need to explain why [it] chose a racist political stance against some Israeli citizens" when "national conflicts exist throughout the world".
Within days of the announcement, Israeli lawyers launched a class-action lawsuit against Airbnb, accusing the company of "outrageous discrimination" and demanding compensation for those settlers impacted by the move. Ma'anit Rabinovich, a settler from the illegal Kida outpost located off Route 60 near Duma, claimed 15,000 shekels ($2,573) in personal damages and sought to win further sums for other settlers.
This prompted the Jewish-American settlers against whom Alwan and Wahb have filed their counterclaim to file a lawsuit against Airbnb. The 18 plaintiffs accused Airbnb of "redlining" Jewish-owned properties while letting Muslims and Christians rent their homes. They said this effectively meant Airbnb had taken sides in the dispute over the West Bank, which has been occupied by Israel since the Six Day War of 1967 and on which any future Palestinian state will be created.
Human rights organisations have called on companies like Airbnb to avoid doing business in the occupied West Bank. In January, Amnesty International singled out tourism giants Airbnb, Booking.com, Expedia, and TripAdvisor in a newly-released report, saying that they were profiting from "war crimes" by offering services to Israel's illegal settlements. The report stated that "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". It, therefore, called on "governments worldwide [to] take action to regulate companies or activities over which they have control".