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What happened when I discovered my employer was profiting from Israel's illegal settlements in Palestine

As a Canadian of Palestinian-Armenian origin, I was forced to question the ethics of a company I'd already dedicated 15 years of my life to

Elias Kibalian
Monday 08 February 2016 14:48 GMT
Western companies are profiting from illegal developments in the West Bank.
Western companies are profiting from illegal developments in the West Bank. (David Vaaknin/The Washington Post)

In January, Human Rights Watch published a report, Occupation, Inc., which directly implicated global real estate giant RE/MAX for its role in sustaining Israel’s settlement programme. The report asserts that “by advertising, selling, and renting homes in settlements, both the Israeli franchise of RE/MAX and RE/MAX LLC, the owner of the global franchise network, facilitate and benefit from the transfer of Israeli civilians into occupied territory…”

I shuddered as I read the details, thinking back to the moment when I learned that RE/MAX - my longtime employer - was involved in the sale of homes in these illegal settlements.

For 15 of my 17 years as a busy Toronto realtor, I was employed by RE/MAX and for 14 of those years I was proud of my connection to the corporation. In 2013, I received a RE/MAX Lifetime Achievement award; in 2014 I won the RE/MAX Hall of Fame award. I never thought I would part ways with the company as long as I was selling real estate in Toronto.

But something happened that made me call into question my connection to the organisation, and its commitment to its own code of ethics.

During the summer of 2014, the world witnessed the Israeli war that leveled much of Gaza to rubble. I was on holiday with friends in Provincetown when four Palestinian boys were killed on a beach by an Israeli double missile strike, during the euphemistically-named “Operation Protective Edge". The boys - Mohammed Bakr, Ahed Bakr, Zakariya Bakr, and Ismail Bakr, aged between nine and 11 years old - were killed while playing football on a beach. The figures of the four young cousins' lifeless bodies being carried off the beach made me cry that day. Since then, I haven't been able to get the horrific images of these boys out of my head.

This was not the first time that I had been moved by the plight of Palestinian people. I am of Armenian-Palestinian descent, and I have family ties to the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem. I know from relatives and friends about the difficult lives of Armenians and Palestinians under occupation in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

But the summer assault on Gaza was a turning point for me. It was no longer enough to criticize Israeli government policy. I needed to do something.

I did some research to find out what charity I could support, and in my trawling of the internet I happened across the website of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The site listed those companies that were being targeted by international boycott campaigns because of their involvement in Israel’s military occupation and its violations of Palestinian rights. Much to my surprise, there was my employer, RE/MAX LLC, on the list, thanks to its role in the sale and rental of illegal settlement properties in the occupied West Bank.

These properties are built on occupied land that once belonged to Palestinians, whose homes are often demolished and farm lands destroyed to make way for Israeli settlers. Hundreds of thousands of these settlers are now living in the West Bank, driving on roads that Palestinians are not allowed to access, and using 10 times the water resources allocated to nearby Palestinians. Some of these settlers are even known to regularly uproot Palestinian olive trees, harass farmers and schoolchildren, and assault Palestinians without suffering any consequences. How could it be that the respected international real estate network for which I worked was profiting from the sale of illegal settlement housing?

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Brokers handling settlement properties considered illegal under international law are operating under the aegis of RE/MAX Europe, which is a division of Colorado-based RE/MAX International. I also believe that some American RE/MAX agents were referring US-based clients interested in purchasing settlement properties to RE/MAX Israel. RE/MAX is a vast network of franchised brokers and agents: the value of the network is in the brand’s reputation and in the referral system. In turn, RE/MAX International profits from each and every sale made by its franchisees - including from the alleged millions of dollars worth of sales made in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

I decided to communicate my concerns directly to employer. I spent more than a year relaying my unease, sharing the information I had assembled in my regional area, as well as with executives at RE/MAX International and RE/MAX Europe. I wanted to know if they were as disturbed as I was by the fact that the company was participating in human rights violations, and playing an active role in Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise, which even the US government considers a major impediment to peace.

My initial queries were met with friendly concern. I was told that RE/MAX Israel did not have an official presence on occupied Palestinian land. However, my own research proved that they indeed had an office in Ma'ale Adumim, a major West Bank settlement, and I was troubled to learn that this office sold illegal Israeli settlement houses. Finally, my repeated follow-up messages on this topic were met with silence.

I eventually accepted the fact that my appeals to RE/MAX’s sense of morality and its obligations within the framework of international law had failed. But it was also clear that the organisation and many like it are risking their reputation for a small market with enormous ethical challenges. As Human Rights Watch pointed out, RE/MAX plays a central role in “sustaining and expanding the physical footprint of settlements.”

And so, in October of last year, in an effort to align my values with my professional life and to take action on behalf of Palestinian rights, I resigned from my job. Perhaps the company will finally cease doing business in illegal Israeli settlements so that other dedicated brokers who care for human rights won’t feel they must walk away. Until then, I hope others will follow my lead.

Elias Kibalian is a realtor based in Toronto

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