By Ziad Alwan
In December, a group of Israeli settlers sued Airbnb in a US Court, claiming discrimination under the Fair Housing Act because the company decided to de-list properties in settlements built on occupied Palestinian land in the West Bank. One of these properties is on land that belongs to my father, that remains registered in his name, but which I and my family are prevented from accessing.
It is land that my children and I should be able to enjoy and farm like my father did. Instead, strangers run a bed and breakfast on it. For these settlers to claim it is they who face discrimination — when they are living on land that was stolen from my family — is the height of hypocrisy. That’s why this week, along with several other Palestinians, I intervened in their lawsuit, and countersued them.
When Airbnb announced late last year that it would no longer list properties in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the move was welcomed by Palestinians and human rights organizations, who for years have urged companies like Airbnb to stop operating in settlements, which violate international law and impose tremendous suffering on Palestinians.
Predictably, the Israeli government and its supporters responded by attacking Airbnb, including in this outrageous lawsuit filed under the Fair Housing Act – a civil rights statute intended to fight discrimination in housing – because Airbnb will no longer list a bed and breakfast in a Jewish-only settlement built on land that was stolen from my father. This month, lawyers with the Center for Constitutional Rights representing me and other Palestinians, including two villages, filed a motion to intervene in the settlers’ lawsuit. We are arguing to the court that we have an interest in the outcome of this litigation, because it’s our land that the settlers are on. We’re also countersuing the settlers for their own liability for war crimes.
I come from a family of farmers. For countless generations, my ancestors cultivated olives and wheat in Ein Yabrud, providing for their families with their bounty. Since shortly after the 1967 War, when the Israeli army took control of the West Bank, Ein Yabrud has been occupied by Jewish settlers, many of them messianic religious extremists, who founded the settlement of Ofra on land belonging to our village in 1975. I was still young, but I remember when it happened.
Ofra has devastated my family and my community. Many Palestinians from my village were forced to stop farming their lands because the Israeli military declared them to be in a “closed military zone.” We have another piece of land that’s three miles from Ofra, but for the last 20 years we have only been able to access it four or five days a year, with a permit from the army, to harvest our olives. Because we can’t take proper care of the trees, we produce less oil.
The settler bed and breakfast is on only one of several of my father’s lands that were seized by the Ofra settlers. He never gave up hope that he would one day get his land back. And it is his legacy that I am upholding by going to court. How does a farmer live without his land?
Today, Ofra is one of the oldest settlements in the West Bank, and built mostly on privately owned Palestinian land, like my father’s. The settlers of Ofra are often violent, especially towards the farmers, to dissuade them from continuing to tend to their crops. Sometimes settlers come and break windows and car windshields in our village. Sometimes they shoot in the air to scare us off our lands. They do this while Israeli soldiers stand by and protect them.
Without our lands, like many Palestinians before us, I and several of my siblings made the difficult decision to leave our home to find a better life for our families in the United States. Today I work as a truck driver, putting in long hours on the road to support my wife and five kids, two of whom are in college.
When I was sworn in as a US citizen, the judge told us to never forget where we came from. I teach my kids that we’re proud Americans, but we’re also proud Palestinians. Two of my children were born in Ein Yabrud, where my mother still lives along with my youngest brother and his family, and all have visited. I’ve taught my children about the land and its history. We go back as often as we can, as a family. It’s important for me that they see the conditions Palestinians living under Israel’s military rule have to endure. I want them to witness the soldiers at the checkpoints, the settlements that scar the landscape, and the other ugly realities of Israel’s occupation.
It’s still stunning for me to see images of my father’s lands posted on the internet in a listing for a luxurious bed and breakfast run by settlers. Regardless of Israel’s attempts to erase us and replace us with Jewish Israelis, we refuse to give up our rights or our land. That is why we’re taking legal action against these settlers and in support of Airbnb’s principled decision to delist properties in West Bank settlements.
We are also urging Airbnb to carry through with its commitment to respecting international human rights law and for other companies that profit from Israel’s theft of our land and other abuses of our rights to follow its lead. As a Palestinian, I know that I cannot get justice in Israel. But I believe that there is justice in the US, and hope the judge will affirm that belief.
Ziad Alwan is a Palestinian-American who lives in Chicago and is from Ein Yabrud, Palestine. He is an intervenor in the lawsuit of Silber v. Airbnb.