As Airbnb set to go public, Amnesty International decries settlement listings

Human rights group accuses home-sharing company of failing to divulge its activity in the West Bank to shareholders

The home of Lewis Weinger in the West Bank settlement of Tekoa, which has been rented out using Airbnb. (Meni Lavi)
The home of Lewis Weinger in the West Bank settlement of Tekoa, which has been rented out using Airbnb. (Meni Lavi)

Amnesty International has accused Airbnb of benefiting from Israeli settlements at the expense of the Palestinians, ahead of the San Francisco-based company’s long-awaited debut on the public market Thursday.

The human rights group also said the home-sharing company — which appeared on a UN blacklist of firms that operate in the West Bank in February 2020 — did not disclose its operations in settlements in registering for its IPO.

Airbnb allows both Palestinians and Jewish settlers in the West Bank to list their properties on its site and said last year it would give the profits from those rentals to charity.

“These settlements are a war crime under international law. Airbnb needs to do right by future investors and stop benefiting from illegal settlements built on stolen Palestinian land in the Occupied Palestinian Territories,” said Saleh Higazi, Amnesty’s deputy regional director for Middle East and North Africa, in a Wednesday statement.

“Shamefully, Airbnb has been promoting and benefiting from a situation that is a root cause of the systematic human rights violations faced by millions of Palestinians on a daily basis,” added Higazi.

A protester against Airbnb’s listing of West Bank settlement rentals during an interview with Ashton Kutcher at Airbnb Open in Los Angeles. November 19, 2016 (Screen capture: YouTube)

Amnesty, which is pushing for a boycott of tourism in Israel’s West Bank settlements, acknowledged the company’s pledge to give the proceeds to charity, but said it was nonetheless enabling the settlement movement in areas sought by the Palestinians for a future state.

“Though Airbnb claims to donate the profit it generates through these listings, allowing them to remain in place means that a wider tourist industry is being supported and allowed to flourish at the expense of Palestinian rights and livelihoods,” the group said.

It further accused the company of a lack of transparency toward shareholders, underlining that its operations in the West Bank and mention on the UN blacklist were absent from its IPO registration.

Airbnb announced in November 2018 that it would remove some 200 rental listings in West Bank settlements because it contended that the settlements “are at the core of the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians.” The movement to boycott Israel saw the decision as a victory.

A home in the West Bank settlement of Tekoa that is rented out using Airbnb. (Meni Lavi)

However, in April 2019 the company reversed its policy after legal action from American Jews.

The policy change came in a court settlement between the vacation rental company and a dozen American Jewish plaintiffs who had sued the company, organized by Shurat Hadin-Israel Law Center, a pro-Israel law organization.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs claimed that Airbnb was discriminating against them for being Jewish, given that it still allowed listings by Palestinian Muslims and Christians in the West Bank.

A copy of the settlement obtained by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency at the time said that Airbnb would allow rentals in both Palestinian areas and Israeli settlements of the West Bank and donate any profits from the West Bank to humanitarian groups. It said it would apply the same policy to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two disputed territories adjacent to Georgia, and evaluate its listings in other disputed territories.

Airbnb said in its statement at the time that it did not support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel.

A map showing vacation rentals in West Bank settlements listed on Airbnb website on November 19, 2018. (screen capture)

Late Wednesday, the company priced its shares at $68 apiece, giving it an overall value of $47 billion, according to a person with knowledge of the transaction who was not authorized to speak because the amount had not yet been made public. The shares will trade on the Nasdaq Stock Market under the symbol “ABNB.”

Airbnb raised $3.7 billion in its offering, making it the biggest US IPO this year, according to Renaissance Capital, which tracks IPOs. The company had initially set a price range of $44 to $50 for its shares, but raised that to a range of $56 to $60 earlier this week, indicating rising investor demand.

Airbnb — which has never posted an annual profit — said its revenue fell 32% to $2.5 billion in the first nine months of this year as the coronavirus forced travelers to cancel their plans. The company delayed its IPO — initially planned for the spring — and funded operations with $2 billion in loans. In May, Airbnb cut 1,900 employees, or 25% of its workforce, and halted programs not related to its core business, like movie production.

But in the months since, Airbnb’s business rebounded faster than hotels as travelers felt safer booking private homes away from crowded downtowns during the pandemic.

Airbnb now has 7.4 million listings, from castles to treehouses, in 220 countries. They are operated by 4 million hosts. The company controls around 39% of the global short-term rental market, according to Euromonitor. It’s the market leader in Europe but trails VRBO, a vacation rental company owned by Expedia, in North America.

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