'With or without them, we'll continue'

Dropped from Airbnb, settlers lament loss of connections, income

For renters across the Green Line, the vacation rental behemoth had been a godsend, opening them up to the world; now they hope potential lodgers will find other ways to find them

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

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)

HAR BRACHA, West Bank — Over the past year, Tirza Mavorach has welcomed a group of bikers from Estonia, students from China, and journalists from across Europe. Just this week, she had couples from Holland and Japan lodge in her upstairs guest rooms.

It took her a while, but visitors were finally starting to rent out Mavorach’s vacation unit regularly, thanks to the Airbnb website, which opened her home in the northern West Bank settlement of Har Bracha to travelers from around the world.

And then the world closed the door on her, or at least that’s how it felt when the vacation-rental giant announced Monday it would drop all listings in West Bank settlements. Now the mother of seven isn’t sure who her clientele will be in the future.

“I was quite shocked when I heard about the decision because I was finally getting to a point where visitors were coming on a regular basis,” said the 57-year-old.

Her complaint has been echoed by dozens of other vacation rental owners throughout the settlements, who worry about how they will be able to market their properties without the support of Airbnb. Israeli officials and others have also vigorously rejected the move, decrying it as discriminatory, and threatening a special tax or legal action.

On Thursday, one such owner filed suit against Airbnb seeking damages of NIS 15,000 ($4,000) for what her lawyers described as “grave, offensive and outrageous discrimination.”

Ma’anit Rabinovich, who advertised her apartment in the Kida outpost on Airbnb, pointed to disputed territories where Airbnb continues to operate, such as Tibet and northern Cyprus, among others.

Not about the money

A year and a half ago, Mavorach began renting out the vacation property — a six-room unit connected to her home with a view of the Samarian hills outside Nablus — through Booking.com, offering groups of up to 20 people the opportunity to visit an area off the beaten path for tourists, and even Israelis.

Half a year later, she discovered Airbnb, and as she began using the service, interest in lodging at her home quickly grew.

Tirza Mavorach sits in her home in the Har Bracha settlement which she rents out on Airbnb. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

“It wasn’t so much about the money,” she said, explaining that competing prices in neighboring Palestinian towns made it impossible to charge more than NIS 150 ($40) per night per guest. “It’s really more about the interaction you have with people from around the world.”

Sitting at the kitchen table of her colorfully modest home, Mavorach turned to her daughter who was busy fixing lunch and asked, “Do you remember that German woman, Henrika.”

The young woman nodded as her mother recalled how her daughter had just returned from a heritage trip to Poland and had been uncomfortable with a German staying at their home.

“But we sat down and Henrika shared with us how she came to Israel to volunteer with Holocaust survivors,” said Mavorach.

One of the three bedrooms Tirza Mavorach rents out from her home in the Har Bracha settlement using Airbnb. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

“My daughter asked me, ‘How are you able to sit with her?’ But this is exactly the point. These interactions are about reconciliation and listening to one another.”

The Har Bracha resident admitted that none of her guests had wound up at her home by chance. “Those who have ended up here were looking to do so.”

Some of the more common tenants at the home have been Orthodox families from around the country looking for an affordable option for a weekend getaway that includes a synagogue nearby.

Airbnb signage on display at a Wired conference in San Francisco, Oct. 12, 2018. (Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for WIRED25 via JTA)

Many of her other lodgers have been religious Christians interested in seeing the land where many of the Bible stories are believed to have taken place. The hostess’s husband is a tour guide and often takes guests around the area with a map in one hand and an Old Testament in the other.

“We are also using the opportunity to market Samaria (northern West Bank). They are coming and buying the honey, jewelry, wine and other items that we sell here,” she said.

This has been among the issues that settlement opponents have raised over the past couple of years while pressuring Airbnb to drop its listings in Israeli homes beyond the Green Line.

View of the Judean Desert from the West Bank settlement of Kfar Adumim. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/TOI)

“Whoever is hosted and pays for a visit to a settlement is actively supporting that settlement,” Shabtay Bendet of the Peace Now settlement watchdog said, arguing that Airbnb should not be encouraging the further entrenchment of Israeli presence beyond the Green Line where Palestinians hope to one day have their state.

He argued that the distinction between Israel proper and West Bank settlements that Airbnb made in its decision “is in fact an Israeli interest.”

“It allows those who do not want to support the occupation to continue to support Israel itself without boycotting all of it,” he said.

Bendet branded the Israeli government’s outcry over the Airbnb decision as “hypocritical,” pointing out that Jerusalem has agreed to sign a number of economic agreements with countries despite their request that the deals exclude businesses in the settlements.

‘Crazy to be taken off’

At the other end of the West Bank, in the settlement of Tekoa outside of Bethlehem, American immigrant Lewis Weinger was confident Airbnb may still reverse course, “because of the various lawsuits they could face.”

Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan has said that Israel would be reaching out to the US government in light of the fact that 25 of its states have laws in place that require the sanctioning of American companies that boycott Israel.

The home of Lewis Weinger, who has been renting it out using Airbnb. (Meni Lavi)

Liberal pro-Israel groups, for their part, have objected to the failure of these orders to distinguish between boycotts of Israel within its 1967 borders, which they reject, and boycotts of settlement businesses and goods.

Weinger had just begun using Airbnb to market his home overlooking the Judean desert and expressed worries the decision will impact his bottom line.

“I was really planning on using this place for my income,” he said.

“I think its crazy that I’m taken off their site, yet Muhammad in the next town over can continue to list his house in ‘Bethlehem, Palestine,'” he lamented.

Lewis Weinger (center) assists children at the fire pit of his villa in the Tekoa settlement which he rents out using Airbnb. (Jared Bernstein)

Prior to renting out his home for overnight lodgers, Weinger and his wife Hindy had been using it as an events venue, given the home’s capacity to hold up to 75 people.

The home sports a large terraced backyard with a swimming pool overlooking Herodian National Park, a distinctive desert fortress built by King Herod some 2,000 years ago.

“People come to stay here and are wowed because they didn’t think that this is what a West Bank settlement looks like,” Weinger said.

“I’m not trying to make a political statement by living here. It’s just a beautiful place to live.”

‘Not occupied’

Back in Har Bracha, Richard and his wife Wilma, Dutch tourists staying at Tirza Mavorach’s home, said they were making a political point by staying in the settlement.

Richard and Hilda, tourists from Holland staying at an Airbnb in the Har Bracha settlement. (Courtesy)

“It is important for us to be able to support this because this is Israel. It is not occupied,” said Richard, sitting on a couch in the guest house.

In a review left on Mavorach’s property listing on Airbnb, still up as of Friday morning, he accused the company of “going anti-Semitic.”

While she was saddened by the Airbnb decision, Mavorach was confident that tourists and Israelis would find other ways to reach her Har Bracha residence.

“I believe that with or without them, we will continue. I’ve been here long enough to know that when they try to make things harder for us, it only causes an opposite effect,” she said.

“People can work with us as partners or they can fight against us,” she added. “I believe they’ll lose and that would be a shame.”

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