Airbnb slammed for offering rooms with a view in Jewish settlements, writes William Booth.
The Airbnb host said that once his guests saw the view, “nobody wants to talk politics”. Igal Canaan, a Jewish settler, threw open the doors of his designer flat to reveal a jaw-dropping panorama of blue sky and Judean wilderness.
“In the morning, you can see shepherds with their flocks,” said Canaan, pointing out the place associated with the birth of the prophet Jeremiah, maybe, there just over the hill. “The view is totally biblical.”
All this, plus swimming pool, kitchenette, fast wi-fi and maybe a welcome bottle of wine, just 20 minutes from Jerusalem, for about $80 (R1 284) a night.
The guest reviews call it awesome – but according to the Palestinians, it is also very wrong.
The Palestinian Authority says offering vacation rental properties in Jewish homes in the occupied West Bank, through US-based sites such as Airbnb, Booking.com and TripAdvisor, violates international law.
These cozy cottages and vineyard villas are not in Israeli “neighbourhoods”, as some listings suggest, but in Jewish settlements that most of the world considers illegal and the US government calls “ illegitimate” and “unhelpful” to the peace process, not exactly what one wants to contend with on vacation.
Israel’s government opposes this terminology and says the land in the West Bank is “disputed”. Some Israeli government ministers argue it is not even “occupied”.
It seems the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will now take place on TripAdvisor as well as at the UN Security Council.
A few weeks ago, Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, sent a terse letter to Airbnb chief executive, Brian Chesky, in San Francisco, warning that his company was “effectively promoting the illegal Israeli colonisation of occupied land”.
Airbnb said it “follows law and regulations where it can do business”.
So what did some Jewish settlers with an extra bedroom do?
“Ever since the Palestinians started complaining, our people took this as a challenge and have been rushing to Airbnb to list their properties,” said Miri Maoz-Ovadia, a spokeswoman for the Binyamin Regional Council.
She represents the municipal body for 42 Jewish settlements and outposts in the hills of the West Bank north of Jerusalem – communities that the PLO says violate the Geneva Conventions.
There are about 400 000 Jewish settlers today in the West Bank and more than 200 Israeli bed and breakfast operations registered in what Israel calls “Judea and Samaria”.
The Jewish settlements had 500 000 tourists last year, Maoz-Ovadia said. About 80% were Israelis, the rest were international visitors, many evangelical pilgrims and biblical tourists, she said.
“You can’t boycott 4 000 years of Judeo-Christian history,” she said, although the current wave of stabbings and shootings by Palestinians – and lethal live-fire countermeasures by Israeli armed forces – has had an impact.
Tourism in Jewish settlements in the West Bank is down. Erekat charged that Airbnb was propping up the “Israeli settlement-industrial complex”.
The Palestinians also say the Airbnb advertisements can be misleading, failing to warn potential guests the properties are not inside Israel but in the occupied West Bank.
The listings are accompanied by a Google map, but critics wonder if foreign visitors realise that those dashes on the map are the Green Line, marking the pre-1967 borders and the land the Palestinians want for a future state.
“The majority don’t ask,” said Canaan, the host with the view, who offers his visitors dates and almonds. “They either know, or they say, ‘Ah, so these are the settlements!’”
In the reviews left by Airbnb guests, only a few complain about the properties being in settlements – although some raise an eyebrow.
At a place near the Dead Sea rented by a person called Gila, famous for her cute little dog and fruit salad, the guest Maria wrote: “I was a little taken aback at having to go through a security checkpoint to get here, but I shouldn’t have .”
Canaan believes the whole thing is the work of the global campaign known as Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), a movement to isolate Israel to pressure it to end the occupation, among other things.
“I don’t think the Palestinians really care. It’s a campaign by ultra-leftists from abroad fighting for the Palestinians,” he said. “They don’t have a case.”
Canaan conceded business has been a bit slow, but he blamed winter weather and the recent stabbings.
“But not here,” he was quick to add. “There’s no Palestinians here. Just Bedouins and Israelis.” (Palestinians are generally not allowed by the Israelis to build in Area C of the West Bank, where Canaan lives.)
He called his community “safer than Jerusalem”.
Scrolling through Airbnb listings in the Jewish settlements of the West Bank, a potential guest can choose among stunning vacation villas set in the wine country and caravans perched on muddy hilltops.
Some of the offerings are in Jewish settlements that are apolitical suburbs; others are hardcore. Included in the mix are some flats in Shilo, where tradition says the Ark of the Covenant once rested, and Ofra, one of the first Jewish settlements built in the early 1970s, home to Yehuda Etzion, who plotted to blow up the Dome of the Rock, one of Islam’s most famous shrines in Jerusalem.
Up north in the settlement of Esh Kodesh, reached by Vineyard View Road (mostly off-limits to Palestinians), Inbal Zeev was tidying up her family’s rental cottage overlooking a valley of grape vines slumbering in the winter chill.
“We’ve had just one foreign visitor, a gentleman from South Africa, about a month ago. Before, we rented through word of mouth. We never thought of advertising,” she said.
“But when someone told me that BDS was pressuring Airbnb, we decided to register.”
Their cabin is all warm wood and plasma-screen TVs, with a Jacuzzi for mom and dad and a second bedroom with bunks and cribs, enough to sleep eight kids at least. (Settlers and orthodox Jews have big families.)
Her Airbnb listing describes its location as “Shilo, Jerusalem District, Israel,” which is a bit of a stretch.
But not to Zeev. “I don’t see this as Palestinian land. It’s Israel,” she said.
Esh Kodesh shares the land, uneasily, with the neighbouring Palestinian village of Kusra, where farmers, shopkeepers and construction workers have instituted civilian night patrols, with clubs and flashlights, to defend themselves against settlers. In nearby Duma, Jewish extremists killed three family members in a night-time arson attack.
“We throw stones. They throw stones. Then the army comes out and fires flares and tells us to go home,” said Mohammad Hassan, a young Palestinian farmer.
In the past few weeks, Palestinians have attacked inside Jewish settlements for the first time since 2011, when five members of the Fogel family were killed in nearby Itamar.
Zeev said her family now locked doors and windows at night.
She recommends that guests who really want to understand the beauty, the spirituality and the reality of this place come and spend a few nights.
“Then you will know,” she said.
* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.