Home > News > Telegraph: ‘We need 1,000 SodaStreams around here’
1 February, 2014
A plant in the Israeli-occupied West Bank that led to Scarlett Johansson ending her role with Oxfam finds itself at the centre of the debate about boycotting the territory
By Inna Lazareva, The Telegraph – Mishor Adumim
The drab factory overlooking the hilly outskirts of East Jerusalem is an improbable symbol for any political cause.
Today, though, the SodaStream plant on the Israeli-occupied West Bank is at the centre of a row between an A-list film star and the British charity that hired her as an ambassador.
On Wednesday, Scarlett Johansson quit her role as an envoy for Oxfam after the charity objected to her starring in an advert for Sodastream, whose factory at Mishor Adumim is part of the Maale Adumim Jewish settlement, deemed illegal under international law.
Oxfam said her decision to star in the advert violated its long-standing position that factories built in disputed Jewish settlements amount to a “denial of Palestinian rights”.
However, Ms Johannson, 29, who has a Jewish mother and hails from a Left-wing New York family, offered a different vision of the factory. Pointing out that it employed both Palestinian and Israeli workers on equal pay, the star of The Avengers described it as a rare opportunity to build “a bridge to peace” between the communities.
So which is it? A symbol of repression, as Oxfam suggests, or a conduit for peace, as Ms Johansson argues? The Telegraph paid a visit to find out.
The plant employs roughly 500 Palestinians from the Occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as 450 Arab Israelis and 350 Jewish Israelis. It makes gadgets for creating home-made fizzy drinks.
For many of the Palestinians, working there involves negotiating a series of complex and time-consuming checkpoints between the factory and their homes in nearby Nablus and Hebron. But the high rates of unemployment in the West Bank made it worth it, they said.
“We have no problems working here”, said one Palestinian employee, as others nodded in agreement. “The relations with the others are good, the pay is fine. But the way home is sometimes very long”.
One outside contractor who regularly visited the plant added: “It’s rare to see a company like this. Everyone sits together, works together. If you ask me, there should be a thousand SodaStreams in this area.”
Two key factors drive around 25,000 Palestinians employees to work in the settlements. The average daily wage earned by Palestinian workers in Israel and the settlements was more than double that of the West Bank private sector in 2012, according to a report by the International Labour Organisation. Unemployment rises to over 40 percent amongst 20-24 year olds in the West Bank.
However, critics say the jobs generated do not justify the settlement itself at Maale Adumim, which they say was created in the 1970s as an outpost into Palestinian territory to ensure access from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea and Jordan Valley.
Earlier this week, SodaStream’s chief executive, Daniel Birnbaum, said he would “never” have built the plant there in the first place had he known the controversy it might attract. But despite it being a “pain the ass”, he said he had no intentions to shut it.
“We will not throw our employees under the bus to promote anyone’s political agenda,” he said.
Yonah Lloyd, president of SodaStream, describes the atmosphere in the plant as “very harmonious”.
“We believe what we’ve accomplished by bringing together all kinds of people to work together, break bread together at lunch, and at company events at the beach, is a dream,” he told The Telegraph.
Several of the SodaStream employees interviewed point to the schism between politics and their everyday lives in terms of relations between Israelis and Palestinians.
“It’s only segregated at the top level, between the Israeli and the Palestinian governments”, says an Arab cook from East Jerusalem working at the SodaStream canteen.
“The politicians, they make all kinds of a mess between Jews and Arabs. But the people here, the Palestinians and Israelis, they are working together, they talk to each other, there’s no problem. But at the political level, there are many issues.”
The cook, who asked not to be named, refers to the case of Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi.
“You know the story of one Israeli and one Palestinian, both from Jerusalem, both cooks?”, he asked.
“They never met in Jerusalem, but both went to London, both started making falafel and humous, met each other and became partners. It’s possible in London but difficult here, because of the politicians”, the cook says.
A Palestinian worker from East Jerusalem is waiting at the bus stop, talking into his mobile phone. “I like working here. The relations between people are good, what can I say?”