By marketing and renting residential property in the occupied West Bank, the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories says global real estate firm RE/MAX could be guilty of violating international law. The anti-war group CODEPINK agrees.
WASHINGTON — Over the next few weeks, activists and supporters of the anti-war group CODEPINK will descend upon the real estate offices of RE/MAX International to peacefully voice their concerns over the company’s rental and sales of homes in the occupied West Bank of Palestine, which includes East Jerusalem.
“In about 20 different cities [we’re organizing] people to go to RE/MAX offices, to talk to the people… to try to get them to sign a letter to the headquarters saying they would like them to abide by international law,” said Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CODEPINK, while speaking with MintPress News.
RE/MAX, the Colorado-based real estate agency, is currently selling residential property in illegal settlements in the West Bank and might be guilty of war crimes, according to a report from Richard Falk, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories.
CODEPINK launched a campaign earlier this month, titled “Boycott RE/MAX: No Open Homes on Stolen Land,” asking RE/MAX International to sever its relationship with franchises that sell properties in illegal settlements in the West Bank. The campaign arose out of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recently announced plans to add 1,060 Jewish-only homes into occupied East Jerusalem.
Benjamin says CODEPINK “felt like this was the last straw.”
“This was making it absolutely impossible to have any peaceful solution and it shows the government’s intransigence. And also we felt it was going to rile up more violence in Jerusalem itself and look what has happened,” she said.
On Tuesday, two Palestinians killed five people at a synagogue in Jerusalem. The gruesome attack was described by Reuters as “the deadliest such incident in six years in the holy city.” The attack followed several months of settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank, the horrific onslaught of Gaza over the summer, which resulted in the deaths of over 2,000 Palestinians, and restrictions on access to Al Aqsa mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem. Benjamin said that she’s not attempting to lay the responsibility for the recent violence on the Israeli government, “but that it’s a contributing factor.”
Noam Sheizaf, of the Israel-based +972 Magazine, went one step further, implicating the Israeli government in the systemic pitting of Israelis against Palestinians, partly through settlement expansion. He wrote, “Nothing can justify the murder of worshipers in a synagogue. The murders should be condemned, and Jerusalem’s residents, Jews and Arabs alike, deserve absolute personal security. But it’s no time to be sanctimonious: the overall responsibility is the government’s.”
Sheizaf continued: “Netanyahu, Bennett and Liberman’s vision — the same vision that is being put into action with the help of Livni and Lapid’s acquiescence — is one of civil war between Jews and Arabs; a war that sometimes crawls under the carpet and sometimes explodes with violence. Nothing beyond that. Not two states and not one state, not warm peace and not cold peace — simply nothing. Just stricter laws against stone throwers, laws against the ‘release of terrorists,’ laws against the Arabic language, new prisons to hold all of the new arrestees, gradual annexation, and ensuring the Palestinian population remains relegated to a status as second-, third- or fourth-class citizens.”
RE/MAX and CODEPINK
CODEPINK’s “Boycott RE/MAX” campaign started earlier this month with the organization sending a letter to the Chairman of the Board and Co-Founder of RE/MAX, Dave Liniger, informing him that the actions of RE/MAX franchises in Israel selling and renting properties in the occupied West Bank are in violation of international law.
The letter stated: “As Chairman of RE/MAX International you must call on RE/MAX Israel to halt the selling of settlement properties. You may show your commitment to ethical business practices worldwide by putting an end to RE/MAX Israel’s illegal and unethical sales.” It received no response.
The group then encouraged 200,000 activists and supporters to write an email to RE/MAX’s headquarters expressing the same concerns. On Nov. 14, RE/MAX has issued a press release, stating: “There is only one RE/MAX office remaining in the West Bank, and RE/MAX LLC is exploring possible options for this office.” The statement was attempting to point out that there were factual errors in the U.N. report.
The U.N. report: Sales violate the Fourth Geneva Convention
In September 2013, Falk, the U.N. Special Rapporteur, submitted a report to the U.N. General Assembly that legally analyzes RE/MAX International and Dexia Group, a European banking group, to see if the companies are potentially implicated in international crimes.
The report found that “real estate agents [such as RE/MAX International] may be held accountable for their involvement with settlements in occupied Palestine.” It further states that RE/MAX assists in settlement expansion by selling properties in settlements.
The company profits from sales of homes located on Palestinian land, which are not available to Palestinians and non-Jews. According to RE/MAX’s website, it received $20,000 to $30,000 as an initial franchise fee for the opening of RE/MAX Israel, and the company charges an ongoing 1 percent of all revenue, plus a flat monthly fee for each associate.
RE/MAX Israel was established in 1995 and currently has over 100 branches, including in West Bank settlements, where it markets and rents properties. According to the U.N. report, the Israeli franchise “targets international clients who may be interested in purchasing a home in or around Jerusalem.” Those properties are also listed on the RE/MAX International website. The report says that it did a search for properties in June 2013 and found 51 properties in nine settlements.
The U.N. report explains that RE/MAX International could be held accountable for international crimes because it provides “international brand name affiliation and recognition, start-up training, ongoing training, technological resources, and advertising and marketing” to the Israeli franchise. It also profits from sales, as well as constantly interacts with and influences, its franchises.
Specifically, the report states, the company may be in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention (Article 49), which states that the “Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” In this case, Israel is the occupying power and the territory is Palestine.
RE/MAX International, according to the U.N. report, is contributing to the crime of transferring citizens of the occupying power (Israelis) onto occupied land. The report states: “In fact, advertising and selling such properties to citizens of the Occupying Power constitute instances par excellence of participating in such transfers.”
In the context of international law, Special Rapporteur Falk wrote that he believes a case could be made that RE/MAX International consciously assisted in a crime because it advertises that crime on its website and profits from it. The report also considers that individual salespeople could be held accountable.
Reaching out for explanation from RE/MAX
Writing for The Electronic Intifada, Ben Norton explains that the website asked one of its reporters to call a RE/MAX agent in East Jerusalem and inquire into properties in occupied territory.
When the reporter called the RE/MAX agent, he said that he would be moving to Jerusalem early next year and asked whether there would be problems with buying a home that once belonged to Palestinians.
“You don’t have to worry about these things” the agent replied. “All our properties legally belong to Jewish owners. They didn’t take them from anyone.”
The article also says that the agent told the reporter that he should inquire with the owners if he was interested in a property, explaining that the owners may not be willing to sell or rent to someone who isn’t Jewish.
MintPress attempted to contact several public relations representatives, including Jason Lindaman, Ronda Scholting, Kristen McCloy, Shaun White, and Hilary Nixon at the Colorado office of RE/MAX International. None of them answered the phone or returned messages.
According to Who Profits, a research center dedicated to exposing the commercial involvement of Israeli and international companies in the continued Israeli control over Palestinian and Syrian land, RE/MAX has an office in the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. It says that the company offers real estate for sale and rental in “all the major West Bank settlements, including: Adam (Geva Binyamin), Beit Arye, Beit El, Giva’at Ze’ev, Ma’ale Adumim, Oranit, Salit, Sha’arei Tikva and Tzofim.” Additionally, RE/MAX has properties for sale and rent in the occupied East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Gilo, Har Homa, Ramot, The French Hill and Pisgat ze’ev.
Of the 1,060 homes the Israeli government recently announced it would build in East Jerusalem, 400 will be built in Har Homa.
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement
CODEPINK’s campaign to convince RE/MAX that it should rein in its Israeli franchise and obey international law was launched in solidarity with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to boycott Israeli products and businesses, divest from its companies, and sanction the country. The BDS movement started in 2005, when a number of Palestinian organizations, including unions and human rights associations, publicly called on civil society around the world to non-violently impose economic and political restrictions on Israel.
Inspired by a movement to disinvest from South Africa during Apartheid, the coalition demanded that punitive actions should be meted out against Israel until it: ends “its occupation and colonization” of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and dismantles the separation wall; recognizes “the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality”; and promotes the right of “Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.”
CODEPINK’s Benjamin said the anti-war group has launched other campaigns around settlement products, such as the cosmetics company Ahava and the home carbonation product company SodaStream. Both companies recently suffered economic losses due to the campaigns.
Benjamin told MintPress that if RE/MAX continues to avail little response to its campaign after the upcoming RE/MAX office visits, CODEPINK will “step it up to go directly to the open houses that RE/MAX has to sell individual homes and do protests outside those homes.”