Palestinians sue settlers over stolen property listed on Airbnb

A picture taken on August 27, 2018 shows a general view of the Jewish settlement of Beit El near the West Bank city of Ramallah. Israeli goverment approved a project to construct hundreds of new illegal Israeli settlement units in the heart of the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Hanina, in occupied East Jerusalem, was reported to commence early next month. The illegal settlements are seen as a major obstacle to peace talks between Israel and Palestine. The Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories are also regarded illegal by the international community. Photo by Shadi Hatem

Ali Abunimah

The Electronic Intifada /  March 20, 2019

Two Palestinians in the United States are suing Israeli settlers for profiting from property stolen from their families in the occupied West Bank, by listing them on the home rental website Airbnb.

The lawsuit is in the form of a counterclaim against the settlers, who themselves filed a lawsuit against Airbnb over its decision last year to remove listings of settlement properties.

The two Palestinians, Ziad Alwan and Randa Wahbe, are being joined in their lawsuit by two towns in the occupied West Bank, the municipality of Anata, east of Jerusalem, and the village council of Jalud, near Nablus.

They are being represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights, which filed the counterclaim in federal court in Delaware on Monday.

In their original lawsuit , the settlers claim that Airbnb is discriminating against them under the Fair Housing Act, a civil rights-era US law that guarantees people access to housing regardless of their race, ethnicity or religion.

But the attorneys for the Palestinian landowners say this turns reality on its head, as the properties the settlers are listing on Airbnb are located in Israeli settlements where Palestinians are prohibited from entering.

All Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Syria’s Golan Heights are illegal under international law.

“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,” said Ziad Alwan, a Chicago resident who 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.

“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.”

Alwan tells his story in the brief video above.

According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, the lawsuit filed by the Palestinian landowners 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 settlers who sued Airbnb are cynically using the language of discrimination in order to further their own unlawful ends,” Center for Constitutional Rights staff attorney Diala Shamas said. “Our clients’ experiences – Palestinians who are directly affected by these settlers’ actions – show where the real discrimination and illegality lies. This case puts the settlers on trial in a US court.”

The municipalities of Anata and Jalud joined the lawsuit because Israeli settlers are listing on Airbnb properties built on their lands:

“I’m bringing this lawsuit because I want to live in peace with my family and among my community without the constant looming threat of arrests, killings, nightly raids, demolition of homes, restrictions on movement and so on – all part of the military occupation that serves to protect discriminatory settler practices,” said Randa Wahbe, the second individual Palestinian plaintiff.

“If Airbnb were to allow Israeli settlers to rent out their homes, they would be normalizing a violent and brutal military occupation,” Wahbe adds in this video:

Israel promotes settler tourism

Meanwhile, the Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq underscored this week the active role of the Israeli government in promoting tourism in settlements.

In February, the Israeli government sponsored the International Mediterranean Tourism Market, a major expo targeting tour operators.

It featured prominent exhibits aimed at encouraging tourism in settlements across the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights.

Al-Haq noted that settlement enterprises, including tourism services “fuel the expansion of Israel’s settlements and incentivize the transfer in of settlers [which] constitutes a war crime under international law.”

Al-Haq warned that “tour operators, travel agents and businesses promoting settlement tourism” may be complicit in furthering “Israel’s unlawful settlement enterprise.”

Pressure to release UN database

Since 2017, the UN human rights office has been compiling a database of Israeli and international companies involved in business in the settlements.

The creation of the database was mandated by the UN Human Rights Council.

Last year, the UN published a report on the initiative, but under intense US and Israeli pressure withheld the names of the companies.

That report specifically mentions how the “tourism industry, including tour companies, online accommodation and travel booking sites and rental car companies” all help to make the settlements “profitable and sustainable.”

Last week Al-Haq sent letters to UN member governments urging that the database be published.

This came after Michelle Bachelet, the current UN high commissioner for human rights, announced yet another delay in releasing the database.

On Monday, almost 100 organizations from all over the world wrote to Bachelet expressing “deep concern” over the delay, saying it would hamper efforts to ensure respect for Palestinian rights and international law.

In February, more than a dozen Palestinian human rights and civil society organizations wrote to Bachelet making the same demand.

They stated that further delay would “foster an already existing culture of impunity for human rights abuses and internationally recognized crimes” committed by Israel and the businesses that aid and abet its settlement enterprise.

Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.