The Israeli government’s recent announcement that it had authorized the building of another 1,000 settlement homes in East Jerusalem left the US government seeing red, with State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki calling the settlement activity “illegitimate” and “incompatible with the pursuit of peace.” But the announcement must have left the US-based real estate giant RE/MAX “seeing green,” ready to cash in on the sale and rental of more illegal settlement homes.
Look around your neighborhood at homes for sale and you will undoubtedly see RE/MAX’s ubiquitous signs sporting red, white and blue hot air balloons. What started out as a mom-and-pop office in Denver, Colorado in 1973 is now a corporate giant, with some 100,000 sales agents in over 90 countries. RE/MAX claims to have “the largest business volume in the world,” adding an average of 1.6 new franchises each day. Its yearly revenues surpass $150 million, derived from fees from its franchisee, annual dues from agents, broker fees, and franchise sales.
Since its entry into the Israeli market in 1995, RE/MAX has become the largest network of real estate agencies in Israel, boasting 100 branches and over 900 real estate agents in this small country roughly the size of New Jersey.
But here is the problem. RE/MAX Israel sells properties that are not only in Israel proper, but are also in occupied Palestinian lands of the West Bank. While Palestinian homes and olive groves are bulldozed to make way for new settlements, Israeli RE/MAX agents are doing business in all the major West Bank settlements, including Adam, Beit Arye, Beit El, Giva’at Ze’ev, Ma’ale Adumim, Oranit, Salit, Sha’arei Tikva and Zufim. In occupied East Jerusalem, the company markets and rents properties in the settlement neighborhoods of Gilo, Har Homa, Ramot, French Hill and Pisgat Ze’ev.
RE/MAX Israel even has an office in Ma’ale Adumim, a settlement strategically located between the northern and southern parts of the West Bank, breaking up the territorial continuity of any possible future Palestinian state. A UN Commission on Human Rights report stated that Ma'ale Adumim, along with the settlements Gush Etzion and Ariel, will effectively divide Palestinian territory into “cantons or Bantustans."
The Fourth Geneva Convention (Article 49) prohibits an occupying power from transferring citizens from its own territory to occupied territory. There are now over 500,000 Jewish settlers living the West Bank in violation of international law. Many are Jewish immigrants from around the world who take advantage of Israel’s 1950 Law of Return that grants automatic citizenship rights to Jews from anywhere in the world upon request, while denying that same right to Palestinians.
The settlements cater to young Israeli couples, first-time buyers who have been priced out of the expensive urban market and are enticed by subsidized settlement housing. RE/MAX Israel also caters to wealthy diaspora Jews wanting to relocate to Israel, or to have a second home there. Perusing its website, you can find—for a cool $1 million—a 4,000 square-foot villa just minutes from Jerusalem, “at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac” in the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. It comes with 6 bedrooms (including a 500 square-foot master bedroom suite with balcony), 2 kitchens, and a 2-car garage. Outside, the photos show a huge tiled patio and wooden deck with a breathtaking view, including beautifully landscaped gardens with waterfalls, fruit and olive trees.
Too expensive? Try a $300,000 condo in an East Jerusalem settlement (French Hill), boasting a designer kitchen with Italian granite. It’s on a high floor in a fully secured building, complete with a Shabbat elevator. Still too much? How about a $180,000 bargain studio apartment within walking distance of Hebrew University and Hadassa in a community of English-speaking immigrants?
While Palestinians slip even deeper into poverty, Israel’s real estate industry is booming. But Bernard Raskin, a Zimbabwe-born former academic from South Africa who sits atop RE/MAX Israel’s empire, laments the limited supply of land in this small country. He says that Israel's real estate market is suffering from a severe shortage of housing stock available for purchase. That’s where the further expansion of illegal settlements comes in.
According to a report by UN Special Rapporteur Richard Falk, by selling properties on Palestinian land, RE/MAX International is “directly contributing to adverse human rights impacts, such as the restrictions on freedom of movement that obstruct Palestinians’ access to land, which is often used for agricultural purposes, and arbitrary and unlawful interference with Palestinians’ privacy, family and home.” Selling property in settlements, the report concludes, “contributes to the commission of the international crime of transferring citizens of the Occupying Power onto occupied territory.”
RE/MAX International’s code of ethics states that its affiliates “shall undertake to eliminate any practice by real estate professionals in their community which could be damaging to the public”. The establishment of settlements is clearly damaging to the Palestinian sector of the public and enables the continued violation of Palestinian human rights.
In November, the US-based peace group CODEPINK launched a campaign “Boycott RE/MAX: No Open Homes on Stolen Land”, asking the company to cut its ties with franchises involved in the sale or rental of settlement properties. The RE/MAX campaign is part of the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a call by Palestinian civil society to engage in non-violent activism to end these injustices by boycotting companies and institutions that are complicit in Israel’s occupation and its discriminatory practices against Palestinians.
CODEPINK sent a letter to RE/MAX CEO board chair David Liniger but got no response. So it encouraged its 200,000 supporters to call and email the Denver-based headquarters, which tried to distance itself from the practices of its Israeli franchises. “You wouldn’t call the head office of McDonalds if you didn’t like the hamburger you got at your local restaurant,” one RE/MAX telephone operator quipped, “so I don’t think you can hold us responsible for what someone is doing in Israel.”
But RE/MAX International does not just tolerate the actions of its Israeli affiliate, it directly profits from the the sale of homes in the occupied Palestinian territories. RE/MAX International lends its name, gives the stamp of approval, and provides start-up and ongoing training, technological resources, and advertising and marketing support to its franchisees. In return, it receives one percent of the revenue of sales and a flat fee per associate.
CODEPINK is also encouraging RE/MAX shareholders to contact the company. Peter Crow from Investor Relations told me that the RE/MAX office in the settlement was a “rogue office” that they were trying to shut down. But activists are not just concerned about the location of one office; their concern is RE/MAX complicity in the sale of Jewish-only settlement homes and its relation to the larger reality of displacement, dispossession and oppression of Palestinians.
CODEPINK organizer Sophia Armen is planning the next phase of the Boycott RE/MAX: No Open House on Stolen Land campaign. “Since RE/MAX has offices all over the world, we’ll be organizing globally. Already, pro-Palestinian groups from India to South Africa are building efforts to picket RE/MAX offices and open houses until RE/MAX complies with international law,” says Armen. “As international people of conscience, we must harness our global power to ensure human rights for all.”