After Airbnb, Booking.com asked to remove West Bank listings

Ahikam Seri
The Israeli settlement of Mitzpe Kramim, near Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, seen on August 29, 2018 (AFP Photo/THOMAS COEX)

ADEI AD (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) - Rights activists on Tuesday urged Booking.com to follow the example of Airbnb and withdraw listings for rentals in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, even as Israel called the move "disgusting" and threatened legal action.

Airbnb said Monday it will remove such listings, just ahead of the release of a Human Rights Watch report criticising the inclusion of settlements.

Israel strongly denounced Airbnb's decision and threatened legal action against the company, while Palestinian officials welcomed it.

The US-based rights group HRW issued its report on Tuesday and called on Booking.com to follow Airbnb's "positive step".

"By ending its brokering of rentals in illegal settlements on land off-limits to Palestinians, Airbnb has taken a stand against discrimination and land confiscation and theft," Omar Shakir, HRW's director for Israel and the Palestinian territories, told AFP.

"It is an important and welcome step and we encourage other companies like Booking.com to follow their lead and stop listing in settlements."

HRW issued the report on the online reservations firms, entitled "Bed and Breakfast on Stolen Land," along with Israeli NGO Kerem Navot.

It says Airbnb, based in the United States, listed at least 139 properties in West Bank settlements between March and July.

"Israelis and foreigners may rent properties in settlements, but Palestinian ID holders are effectively barred," HRW said.

That is "the only example in the world the organisations found in which Airbnb hosts have no choice but to discriminate against guests based on national or ethnic origin," it said.

According to HRW, Booking.com, based in the Netherlands, had 26 properties in West Bank settlements as of July, 17 which were on land Israel acknowledges is privately owned by Palestinians.

Booking.com did not indicate it would be changing its policy, telling AFP it permits "all accommodation providers worldwide to list on our platform as long as they are in compliance with applicable laws."

"Everything we do in terms of how we display information is always in accordance with local laws to provide transparency to anybody looking for accommodation on our site," a statement from Booking.com said.

- 'Defy peace' -

Israeli Tourism Minister Yariv Levin on Tuesday threatened legal action against Airbnb in the United States and Israel over its move, branding it "hypocritical and disgusting".

In contrast, senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat has welcomed Airbnb's decision as "an initial positive step".

"Israeli settlements are not just an obstacle to peace, but defy the very definition of peace," he said in a statement.

Moria Shapira, an Israeli settler who had been offering an apartment for rent through Airbnb, said she was "in shock" over the company's move.

Shapira lives in the Adei Ad wildcat settlement outpost deep in the West Bank. She said she did not understand why nearby Palestinian communities could post rentals on Airbnb but she could not.

"Part of the surprise was that here next to us, in Ramallah and in Rawabi, there are advertised Airbnb apartments and it is fine," she told AFP at her hilltop home.

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.

Nati Rom, a resident of the Esh Kodesh wildcat settlement and a lawyer with the Lev Ha'Olam organisation which fights boycott campaigns against Israel, protested over what he termed "anti-Semitic pressures".

"It’s regretful to see Israeli organisations that harm us, and it's more regretful to see Airbnb surrendering to these pressures -- anti-Semitic pressures that harm the Jewish sector," he said, referring to the group that worked with HRW.