Human Rights Watch’s Airbnb Campaign: Discrimination and BDS
On November 20, 2018, Human Rights Watch (HRW), in cooperation with Kerem Navot (an Israeli NGO), published “Bed and Breakfast on Stolen Land: Tourist Rental Listings in West Bank Settlements.” The document is the culmination of a two-year long coordinated and well-financed BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) campaign targeting Airbnb (and Booking.com).1 HRW makes the discriminatory recommendation that Airbnb deny its services to Jews living in the West Bank.
The day before the report was published, Airbnb announced that it was “removing listings” in “Israeli settlements in the Occupied West Bank.” The company initially provided no details as to how it defines “Israeli settlements” or the “Occupied West Bank” and whether its decision relates to Jerusalem, and in particular, the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.2
In its report, HRW notes 139 properties listed on Airbnb that the NGO claims are owned by Jewish Israelis in the West Bank. The report makes numerous false claims regarding the legal and human rights responsibility of Airbnb in allowing Israelis from the West Bank to list their properties. HRW’s methodology is similarly questionable, as it presents just six examples (out of a potential sample size of 139) to levy accusations of “stolen land” and discrimination by Airbnb hosts against Palestinians.
HRW also demonstrates a glaring lack of concern for universal human rights, inaccurately claiming that Palestinians in the West Bank are the sole group globally that faces discrimination in renting on Airbnb. Discrimination against LGBTQ, women, other minorities, non-married couples, and Israeli nationals, which is acceptable per Airbnb policy, is downplayed in the HRW analysis. This makes it clear that the NGO campaign has nothing to do with promoting human rights and is instead part of HRW’s on-going BDS campaign and its promotion of the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council blacklist.
Antisemitism in the Report
The language used in the document often echoes antisemitic themes. Reflecting an obsession with the Jewish state, for two years, HRW campaigned on a single, marginal element (Jewish homes in the West Bank) of alleged discrimination involving Airbnb listings (see below). HRW also regularly refers to Israelis stealing land, characterizes their homes as being luxurious, and decries that a synagogue was built in a settlement. In contrast, Palestinians are portrayed as hard working laborers, farmers, and the undisputed rightful owners of the land in question (even on land that HRW admits was owned by Jewish families prior to the 1948 Independence War). HRW’s Deputy Director for MENA region Eric Goldstein’s even admitted that HRW rejects any Jewish presence in the West Bank, even if Jews are the legal title-bearers of the land.
Another antisemitic statement from HRW is the claim that “Israeli citizens and residents, holders of Israeli entry visas and even people of Jewish descent may enter settlements, but Palestinian residents of the West Bank are barred from doing so by military order, except as laborers bearing special permits” (emphasis added). The categories of “Israeli citizens,” “Israeli residents,” and holders of entry visas can include Jews, Christians, Muslims, and everyone else in the world – there is no such thing as a “person of Jewish descent” who does not fall into one of these three categories.
Different Types of Discrimination – Singling Out Israel
HRW alleges that “Israeli settlements in the West Bank are the only example in the world today that Human Rights Watch and Kerem Navot found in which Airbnb hosts would be mandated by law to discriminate against guests based on national or ethnic origin.”
- HRW’s claim that, in settlements, Israel embraces “discrimination  based on national or ethnic origin, as opposed to citizenship” is false. Palestinians who are citizens or permanent residents of Israel (as many Israeli Arabs identify, as well as some residents of the West Bank, including residents of East Jerusalem, which HRW treats as the West Bank) may enter “settlements.” In fact, many Palestinians live in “settlements” beyond the 1949 Armistice line.
- HRW entirely erases the reason why some Palestinians cannot enter some settlement areas. Israel and the Palestinians remain in an ongoing and protracted conflict, one that often involves Palestinian terrorism against Israeli civilians, in particular in the West Bank.
- Contrary to HRW’s claim, Israelis are barred from entering Algeria, Bangladesh, Brunei, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Oman, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, UAE, and Yemen. They are also not allowed to enter Area A of the West Bank and Gaza.
- Airbnb allows for discrimination outside of the US and the EU when this discrimination is in compliance with local laws, such as “marital status, national origin, gender or sexual orientation.” HRW admits that “Should it prove impossible for hosts of a certain area to list properties on a nondiscriminatory basis…Airbnb should disallow listings in that area.” Yet, NGO Monitor could not find evidence that HRW has ever campaigned – through reports, social media campaigns, generating bad publicity for the company, op-eds, lobbying the UN, etc. – against Airbnb’s broader policy.
- According to a July 2017 article in the Guardian, 72 “countries and territories worldwide continue to criminalise same-sex relationships, including 45 in which sexual relationships between women are outlawed.” The article adds that in eight of these countries (including Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen) where Airbnb is available, “homosexuality can result in a death penalty.” HRW, however, falsely states that “in many places across the world where discrimination in renting accommodations is common…local law prohibits such discrimination.”
- The report misleadingly uses Egypt as an example where HRW is “not aware of cases in which Airbnb hosts there faced official sanctions for renting properties to unmarried or same-sex couples,” even though “Egypt’s laws, while problematic, are more ambiguous than other countries.” In addition, the criterion of facing “official sanctions” is not applied to Israel and settlements, as HRW cannot point to a single instance when an Israeli Airbnb host was punished by Israeli authorities for renting to Palestinians.
It is clear from HRW’s selective analysis and advocacy on issues related to Airbnb and discrimination that the organization has no interest in encouraging the platform to promote universal human rights, including LGBT rights, and is simply interested in creating an argument for exclusive use in the case of Jews living in the West Bank.
Faulty Legal Arguments
HRW utilizes legal rhetoric in order to have their report appear as though it is based on legal analysis. However, their mixing of legal concepts, misuse of terms, and faulty logic demonstrate that this is simply political propaganda and not a document with arguments that carry any legal weight. As Airbnb itself stated, offering listings in the West Bank is not illegal.
- HRW claims that Airbnb is complicit in “blocking their [Palestinian] access to nearby privately-owned plots of land, restricting their freedom of movement and, because of those travel restrictions, limiting their right to access education and health services and protections for keeping families intact” based on its services being made available to Israelis living in the West Bank. It is difficult to comprehend how Airbnb is complicit in “travel restrictions” in the first place. The resulting concerns of right to education and health – which are also absurd since these services are provided to Palestinians by their own government in areas in which they reside or by Israel – are even more remote.
- HRW invents legal standards that do not exist anywhere in international law, and is simply offering an opinion cloaked in legal rhetoric. In sharp contrast to HRW’s claims, when operating in the West Bank, companies like Airbnb do not violate domestic law – in their home countries, Israel, or the Palestinian Authority (PA) – nor international law, which does not bar businesses from areas of conflict and/or occupation. Moreover, the business activity is entirely consistent with a host of Israeli-Palestinian agreements endorsed, guaranteed, and witnessed by the international community.
- According to Airbnb’s own regulations (and as noted in HRW’s report), Airbnb allows for discrimination of guests by homeowners outside of the US and the EU when the discrimination is in compliance with local laws. In this way, Airbnb understands that the international legal responsibilities fall on the country and not on the business or user.
Negating Mutual Israeli-Palestinian Agreements
It is telling that throughout HRW’s entire report concerning business in the West Bank, the NGO fails to mention the Oslo Accords and their role in articulating the structure of business. The Oslo Accords, which are mutually agreed upon by Israelis and Palestinians and guaranteed by members of the international community, explicitly allow business activity to take place in areas under Israeli control and further dictate where the Israeli military would remain present and where Palestinians would gain autonomy.
If HRW were interested in Palestinians gaining autonomy over the entire West Bank, it should advocate for peaceful coexistence and promote negotiations between both sides. Instead, HRW and other BDS activists encourage Palestinian rejectionism and anti-normalization. BDS seeks to prevent Palestinians from working in Israelis companies, like SodaStream, that allow Palestinians to work side-by-side with Israelis and earn living wages. These BDS groups and HRW then absurdly complain and condemn Israel for the result of these actions.
HRW places businesses operating in East Jerusalem in the same category as those operating in the West Bank, claiming that they too contribute to “violations of international humanitarian law.” At the same time, HRW condemns Israel for not providing enough resources to the very same area. The two statements are clearly contradictory and illogical.
Unlike the West Bank, Israel officially annexed East Jerusalem and therefore applies Israeli domestic law there. Any resident of Jerusalem is permitted to move freely throughout the city (east to west included) and the rest of the country, and to benefit from the various resources available to them.
More importantly, HRW obfuscates the reality of a mixed city and the absence of a peace agreement and instead advances a discriminatory policy wherein Jerusalem’s Arab and Jewish populations can and should be differentiated from each other, and requiring the cessation of what it deems “Israeli” economic activity in East Jerusalem.
If Airbnb were to follow HRW’s recommendations and withdraw their services and goods from East Jerusalem, the end result would economically damage all of Jerusalem’s population and be discriminatory in two directions: Palestinians would be excluded from receiving basic goods and services in their neighborhoods, while an ethnic/religious test would be created to determine who can provide (i.e. that Jews cannot provide) services.
- Alongside HRW and Kerem Navot are Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), UN officials, at least two additional Israeli groups, and the Palestinian Authority. The funders responsible for this campaign include a number of European governments and the US-based Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
- These terms and their legal status are the subjects of intense debate and disagreement.