On November 19, 2018 Airbnb announced it would stop listing properties in West Bank Israeli settlements. Responsible investors should study the ways in which the company has navigated its exposure to these severe reputational and legal risks and encourage other companies to follow suit.
The Challenge of Business in Conflict Zones and Occupied Territories
According to the USSIF 2018 Trend Report, out of $46.6 Trillion invested professionally in the U.S., $12 Trillion, or 26% (!) are invested with some socially responsible investment (SRI) considerations. According to the report, responsible investors recognize the risks of business in conflict zones as uniquely prominent, as conflict risk was identified as the overall leading social criterion considered by investors, and the top specific criterion used by institutional investors. This recognition by investors can help motivate companies to reassess their activities in conflict zones in general and in occupied territories in particular.
Occupied territories around the world include Crimea, Northern Cyprus, Western Sahara, as well as the Palestinian West Bank. Each case is unique and poses specific challenges to corporate social responsibility and corporate respect for international human rights law. An added challenge for all stakeholders in occupied territories is presented by the local occupying governments themselves. When human rights advocates or responsible investors engage with companies about their responsibilities in occupied territories, the occupying governments typically see this as a threat to state interests and policies. As a result, they often respond with official and unofficial attacks, using disinformation and the media, legal means, legislation, surveillance, and intimidation on a scale not seen on other human rights issues.
For example, in 2016, we participated in a UN Forum on Business and Human Rights session titled Practicing Responsible Business in Occupied Territories. The session was almost cancelled due to pressure by the official Moroccan UN delegation, and later it was almost shut down by Moroccan participants. Similarly, Russian state actors have been manipulating social media about news from Crimea. In Israel, the government’s special new propaganda ministry, officially the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, has helped coordinate, establish and finance organizations around the world to target human rights and Palestinian rights advocates, to push for legislation against free speech on Palestine, to create fake websites and black lists, and in general to plant fear and confusion among activists and investors. None of it is new or surprising; all governments abuse power. Sometimes these scare tactics suppress discussion, but in the long run, we believe they would be self-defeating.
What was Airbnb’s Human Rights Risk Exposure in the Cccupied Palestinian Territory?
Airbnb had about 200 listings in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, inside the Palestinian territory. Unlike in Crimea or Western Sahara, this area (outside Jerusalem) was not annexed to Israel. Instead, it is under the legal jurisdiction of the Israeli military and is not recognized by Israel as part of Israel. Israeli settlements – over 200 of them – are civilian towns and cities built inside the occupied territory, for Israeli citizens and under Israeli law. International Humanitarian Law clearly states that this is illegal. That is the view of the International Court of Justice, the UN Security Council, all major human rights organizations, and all U.S. administrations until Trump's.
One of the challenges to conducting responsible business activities in these settlements is the legal and physical separations between two ethnic groups living in the same (small) area: Israeli settlers enjoy the protections of Israeli civilian law, while the majority, indigenous Palestinian residents are non-citizens, with no civil rights or protections, subject to Israeli military decrees. Separations and restrictions of movement further solidify an Apartheid-like situation. What makes the legal situation even more complicated for businesses is the fact that much of the land these settlements were built on was not acquired legally from its Palestinian owners. About 30 percent of it, according to Israeli publications, was not acquired legally even by Israeli legal standards. For more information about settlements see the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem.
The same impossible contradictions, of vacation houses in the midst of a brutal military occupation, where local residents have no civil liberties, were mocked in a video titled The Weirdest Airbnbs in West Bank Settlements, produced by Israel’s leading progressive newspaper Ha’aretz.
Airbnb’s statement came one day before the publication of an in-depth exposé by Human Right Watch titled Bed and Breakfast on Stolen Land. Judging by the timing alone, it is possible that this report helped the company form its new policy.
What is Airbnb’s New Policy?
Human rights due diligence is a central element of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. This is the process through which businesses identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how they address their adverse human rights impacts. The Guiding Principles acknowledge that there is a heightened risk to human rights presented by complex operating environments such as conflict-affected areas, as well as the potential legal risk of complicity in gross human rights abuses. Accordingly, they mandate that enterprises operating in such contexts undertake “enhanced” human rights due diligence. In order to clarify what this process might look like, the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights has issued a working paper about applying the UN Guiding Principles to corporate activities in the Israeli settlements.
Airbnb’s published new policy about its operations in occupied territories, which is very much in line with the UN- prescribed due diligence process, states:
“As a global platform operating in 191 countries and regions and more than 81,000 cities, we must consider the impact we have and act responsibly. Accordingly, we have developed a framework for evaluating how we should treat listings in occupied territories. When evaluating these types of situations, we will:
- Recognize that each situation is unique and requires a case-by-case approach.
- Consult with a range of experts and our community of stakeholders.
- Assess any potential safety risks for our hosts and guests.
- Evaluate whether the existence of listings is contributing to existing human suffering.
- Determine whether the existence of listings in the occupied territory has a direct connection to the larger dispute in the region.
When we applied our decision-making framework, we 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.”
Contrary to publications, and despite the pressure from human rights organizations and some would argue in contradiction to its own new policy, Airbnb continues to publish ads for listings in East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, both internationally-recognized occupied territories that were unilaterally annexed by Israel. The company offered no explanation for this, but surely it makes for easier implementation, following Israel’s own definition of its borders.
Corporations need to apply their human rights policies consistently across geographical locations. Many times, companies do not apply such policies in Palestine/Israel at all, for fear of the political controversy. For example, the European Union and some European countries have imposed strict sanctions on businesses in Crimea, including a ban on imports and all tourism in the area. Perhaps that is the reason why there do not seem to be any current Airbnb listings in Crimea. But there are listings in Western Sahara as well as in the occupied Golan Heights and occupied East Jerusalem. These are all occupied areas where, post annexation, there are no official “settlement”-type towns, de-jure reserved only for the occupiers. Segregation is maintained in other, de-facto means, making it harder for a company such as Airbnb to limit its business geographically.
Still, Airbnb’s decision was lauded by human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, by progressive Jewish organizations, as well as by Jewish Israelis and Israeli organizations. See for example the op-ed by Gideon Levy in Ha’aretz in support of the company’s decision, reflecting the vibrant political discussion in Israel and among Israeli Jews about the boycott of settlements and about corporate social responsibility in the Palestinian occupied territory. The Israeli government immediately opened in a barrage of threats against Airbnb.
On the Charge of Anti-Semitism
The messaging (quite unified) coming from Israeli government officials and pro-occupation organizations portrays Airbnb’s decision as anti-Semitic, mostly without using this exact word.
For example, they consistently refer to the decision as a ban on “Jewish settlements” or a form of religious discrimination. Indeed, these settlements are deeply segregated, but not all of their residents are Jewish. In Hebrew, no one would refer to these towns as “Jewish,” a designated Jewish-only town would be an illegal form of discrimination, even by Israeli law. Moreover, especially around Jerusalem, there are more and more non-Jewish residents in these settlements. Non-Jewish residents would not be allowed to post ads on Airbnb. This policy excludes illegal geographical entities, not individual people.
In some publications, Airbnb was portrayed as joining the boycott of the State of Israel, but the new policy does not affect any of the listings within the State of Israel itself. A recent study revealed that Tel Aviv has the highest rate in the world of Airbnb rentals, with over 30 percent of rental spaces in the city on Airbnb and most tourists using Airbnb over hotels.
Jewish communities are deeply divided over the Israeli occupation. Most Jewish progressives, even those who would not consider a boycott of Israeli goods or companies, openly support one form or another of sanctions on Israeli illegal settlements, including a ban on settlement trade. This is reflected in the public debate around Airbnb’s decision. Presenting criticism of human rights abuses or government policies as “anti-Semitic” trivializes anti-Semitism, as 35 prominent Israeli professors and Israel Prize laureates have recently stated in a public letter.
What is the Role of Socially Responsible Investors?
Investors and other stakeholders should help companies follow through in the consistent implementation of their human rights policies, as well as provide them with the support they need to withstand potential political backlash.
When engaging with other companies with extensive exposure in the occupied Palestinian territory, investors should expect these companies to develop a human rights policy in order to navigate the myriad of moral, legal, reputational, and political risks.
They should be encouraged to start a human rights due diligence process in order to assess their contribution to the conflict and to continued human suffering and reach a responsible mitigation plan. The first step, often skipped, is consulting with stakeholders on the ground, particularly the Palestinian indigenous population, most affected by the occupation.
Airbnb’s new policy and decisions can serve as one example for an implementation of the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights, following the guidance for business activities in conflict zones. We can applaud the company, just as we continue to ask it for more transparency and consistency in applying the policy, and encourage other businesses to do the same.