“A small contribution to peace”? Inside SodaStream

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Palestinian workers in SodaStream’s Ma’ale Adumim factory © Jessica Abrahams

Palestinian workers in SodaStream’s Ma’ale Adumim factory © Jessica Abrahams

By Jessica Abrahams prospectmagazine.co.uk

SodaStream has been in the news in recent weeks for all the wrong reasons. Its new brand ambassador, actress Scarlett Johansson, ended up quitting her role at Oxfam over “a fundamental difference of opinion” about the Israeli company’s operations in the West Bank, which Israel has occupied since the 1967 war. Various publications ran articles implying she had chosen money over morals.

But inside the SodaStream factory at Ma’ale Adumim, an Israeli settlement close to the Green Line—the border marked out by the armistice agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbours following the 1948 war—the picture is more complex. Of the 1,300 employees, roughly 500 are Palestinians from the West Bank, 400 are Arabs from East Jerusalem and 350 are Israeli Jews. The factory workers earn about three times more than the average Palestinian wage, and a little more than the Israeli minimum wage.

“I’ve been working for a long time alongside the Jews and Palestinians,” one department manager, a Palestinian, tells me. “Everyone does everything together, we eat together, we come to work together. Everyone is treated equally, there’s no difference. I see it as a small contribution [to peace].” Should foreign companies operate factories in the West Bank? I ask. “Yes, of course,” he says. “There’s valuable opportunities here because the Palestinian Authority can’t create enough jobs.”

The BDS movement—Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions—has become increasingly vocal in recent years. The global campaign hopes to put pressure on Israel to withdraw from Palestinian territories and respect the right of return for Palestinian refugees through wide-ranging boycotts. These include boycotts of Israeli companies with operations in Palestinian territories, as well as boycotts of Israeli universities and cultural institutions which, the campaign’s supporters say, help to boost the country’s international image and normalise the situation of occupation.

The campaign has had little impact economically but has had a strong effect on public perceptions of Israel, with high-profile figures including Stephen Hawking and Elvis Costello participating. SodaStream’s “EcoStream” shop in Brighton has long been a target, attracting pro-Palestine demonstrations, as well as counter-protests from pro-Israel groups.

What would you say to people in the west who say we should boycott companies operating in the West Bank? I ask the production manager at SodaStream’s factory, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem, fluent in Hebrew, Arabic and English. “I think you need to invite them to come here and to see this: the Palestinians and the Jews together, with no discrimination,” he says. “I believe peace starts here, with the economy. Not with politics, with the economy.”

Not everyone agrees, of course. One Palestinian living in the West Bank, who does not work for SodaStream, was quoted by America’s NPR as saying: “Having Israeli factories on Palestinian land helps the Israeli economy and consolidates the settler presence on our land. When they provide work for the Palestinians, it’s a way of beautifying the image of the occupation.”

Ma’ale Adumim, the settlement where the factory is based, was the focus of the Babs al-Shams protest camp a year ago, when Palestinians pitched up tents to protest against Israeli plans to expand the settlement. European politicians also voiced strong opposition to the plans, which could undermine the viability of a two-state solution by dividing Palestinian land.

Settlements more widely present a major obstacle to the process of establishing an independent Palestinian state, strengthening Israel’s presence in the West Bank and complicating the process of withdrawal. Even some Israeli Jews boycott products made beyond the Green Line, and SodaStream’s CEO, Daniel Birnbaum, has also been critical of the settlements.

But boycotts may have a harder impact on employees and ordinary Palestinians, who lose out on good employment opportunities, than on the companies themselves, who can simply move their operations if the boycott is successful.

In a meeting room next to the factory, SodaStream’s COO Yossi Azarzar, tells me: “I could shut down this factory; in terms of capacity, we don’t need it. We produce things more cheaply in China [where the company also has a factory]. But, morally, I can’t do that. I can’t tell 1,300 people ‘sorry, but you don’t have a job tomorrow.’”

That such factories in the West Bank create well-paid jobs for Palestinians doesn’t necessarily mean they are good for Palestine or Palestinians on a wider level. But, says a Palestinian worker when asked about the BDS movement: “It’s a bit ‘big politics’ for me. My concern is my livelihood.”