MISHOR ADUMIM, West Bank — Twenty-eight-year-old Saida Roma has worked for four years at the SodaStream factory in the Israeli settlement of Mishor Adumim, 20 minutes east of Jerusalem, checking metal discs that go into the valves of the home carbonating machines that are built here. She says the pay and conditions are good.
Roma said she was against a boycott of SodaStream, which is at the center of an international controversy triggered by the recent endorsement of the company by the actress Scarlett Johansson. Criticized by the humanitarian organization Oxfam for promoting a company that does business in what many believe is an illegal settlement on Palestinian land, Johansson resigned as the group’s international ambassador. Her ad for SodaStream aired during Sunday’s Super Bowl.
That, Roma said, “is something else. We want to work.”
Five hundred Palestinians work at SodaStream’s factory in the West Bank, and CEO Daniel Birnbaum said that despite calls to boycott the company because of its location, his company had been growing by 30 percent annually over the past five years.
Nevertheless, outside the walls of the factory, growing criticism of Israel has raised fear that all Israeli companies – not just those in the settlements – will be isolated if U.S.-mediated peace talks fail.
In recent months, European banks and investment funds have pulled financing from Israeli companies that are involved with the settlements. On Saturday, Denmark’s Danske Bank blacklisted Israel’s Bank Hapoalim because it funds construction in Israeli settlements. In January, Norway’s Ministry of Finance announced that its pension fund would sells its interests in the Israeli construction firms Africa Israel and Danya Cebus because they build homes in the settlements. In November, Israel nearly didn’t sign on to the Horizon 2020 program, which provides generous European Union funding to Israeli scientists, because the agreement stipulated that money couldn’t go to institutions in the settlements.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has pointed to incidents such as these as a reason for Israelis to work to end the conflict with the Palestinians.
“For Israel, there’s an increasing delegitimization campaign that has been building up,” Kerry said at a security conference in Munich over the weekend. “People are very sensitive to it. There are talks of boycotts and other kinds of things.”
Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid warned last week that even a partial European boycott could dent Israeli exports by nearly $6 billion. Europe is Israel’s largest trading partner.
Israeli officials say the calls for boycotts are counterproductive and only harden Palestinian negotiating positions. “These groups are undermining peace,” one senior official in the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, speaking anonymously because he wasn’t allowed to be quoted by name. Despite the boycott calls, the official said, interest in Israeli industry is higher than ever.
Angry hard-liners have blamed Kerry’s persistence in pressing for a solution for provoking the boycotts.
“We expect our friends around the world to stand beside us, against anti-Semitic boycott efforts targeting Israel, and not to be their trumpet,” the country’s economics minister, Naftali Bennett, said Sunday.
Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin – who lives in a settlement –described calls to divest from Israel as a propaganda war.
But Israeli society is split over the issue.
Yaron Ezrahi, a political scientist emeritus at Hebrew University, said the boycott call was taking a toll on contacts across a wide range of areas: arts, science and business. He said dozens of scholars had canceled appearances in Israel in an “unprecedented” wave.
“The European nations and the West generally favored Israel for 69 years after the Holocaust because of guilty feelings,” Ezrahi said. But now, Europe “has emancipated itself from that sense of guilt and transferred it to the living suffering and agony of Palestinian people.”
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni has warned that the continued existence of settlements in areas of the West Bank claimed by Palestinians will make Israel a pariah. On a recent television program devoted to the issue, she compared Israelis to South Africans during apartheid who underestimated the ability of boycotts to bring down a regime.
“I spoke with some of the Jews who live today in South Africa, and they said, ‘We thought we had time. We thought we could cope with it. We thought we didn’t need the world at all costs,’ ” Livni told Channel 2 TV News. “I am shouting, ‘Wake up.’ ”
Others argue that a boycott of Israeli settlement goods injures only the Palestinians who work in the factories, though studies show that if Palestinians had the chance they’d work in Palestinian-owned businesses. A survey by Al Quds University, a Palestinian university, found that 82 percent of the Palestinians who work in Israeli settlements would leave their jobs if they had opportunities in their own faltering economy.
Still, the workers at SodaStream say they feel lucky to have their jobs. The sprawling factory is clean, with high ceilings and a comfortable workroom. Employees eat at a company cafeteria and take smoking breaks on wooden benches outside. The company provides transportation from the Palestinian towns and villages where they live.
“I work here to live,” said Shadi Awatla, 24, of Jericho, who assembles white plastic components for the machines. “There is no good living in Jericho. You get 50 shekels a day. Here we make 250 a day.” A shekel is worth about 28 U.S. cents.
Nabil Basharat, 40, who’s from the West Bank village of Jaba, has worked for four years at SodaStream. He earns nearly $2,000 a month as a shift manager over 70 workers, who include West Bank Palestinians, Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis. He said he’d happily work in a Palestinian factory but there were no jobs.
“I hope that day comes,” he said.
His brother Youssef Basharat, 21, said he was grateful for the work. He’s used his salary to buy land and build a house.
“SodaStream gives us health insurance and transportation. Our managers behave with us like a family,” he said. “Why close SodaStream? Where will all the people go?”
Cheslow is a McClatchy special correspondent.