Page updated: 17/07/14
Charlotte Perkins follows the fizzy drinks maker from the West Bank to the Negev.
The Israeli drinks manufacturer SodaStream has long been a target of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, launched by Palestinian civil society organisations in 2005.
Now gaining momentum internationally, BDS was borne out of Israel’s continued breaches of international law, as evidenced by its perpetual settlement building in the occupied West Bank and disregard for the rights and human dignity of Palestinians.
SodaStream has been criticised by campaigners for its role in this, specifically its role in the settlement economy. Its principal manufacturing plant is based in the industrial zone of Mishor Adumim, located in the illegal West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, to the east of Jerusalem.
According to a 1999 report produced by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, vast amounts of land were appropriated in the building of this 40,000-strong settlement, with territory taken from five Palestinian villages and two Bedouin tribes. For the villages affected, Ma’ale Adumim has resulted in the irreversible loss of an agricultural way of life and for the Bedouin tribes has meant expulsion under threat of violence from the land they called home.
Ma’ale Adumim also forms part of the highly controversial E1 project, approved in 1999 by the Israeli government, which separates East Jerusalem from the West Bank through spiralling settlement development that is illegal under international law. Many argue that E1 effectively destroys the possibility of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state and with it the prospect of a two state solution.
SodaStream’s facility in the illegal Israeli settlement of Mishor Adumim – soon to close and be relocated in Negev.
In an interview with Reuters in early 2014, SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum claimed the Ma’ale Adumim SodaStream factory was a “model for peace”, pointing to a workforce made up of Palestinians and (to a much lesser extent) Israeli Jews. Conditions at the factory would suggest a rather different reality.
An assembly line worker at the plant typically earns around 23 shekels an hour (less than £4) and is regularly required to work 12 hour shifts, including on a Friday and Saturday. Evidence of discrimination towards the Palestinian workforce is also clear, as documented extensively by the Israeli research group Who Profits.
Sixty Palestinian workers were unceremoniously fired from the factory in July 2014 after having demanded further food rations for their night shifts during Ramadan, a move strongly condemned by the trade union WAC-MAAN (the Workers’ Advice Center). Workers are prevented from bringing their own food to the factory due to kosher food restrictions.
A focal point for BDS
Given the location of SodaStream’s manufacturing plant, it has, unsurprisingly, become a recent focal point for activists campaigning for the rights of Palestinians. In 2014 the American actress Scarlett Johansson famously stepped down from her role as ambassador for Oxfam when she became an unapologetic brand ambassador for SodaStream. In an unusually strong statement, Oxfam declared Johansson’s roles to be “incompatible” given the charity’s position on businesses working within settlements outside Israel’s pre-1967 borders.
As Ethical Consumer reported last year, John Lewis also ceased to stock SodaStream products citing dwindling sales, and EcoStream – a green-themed SodaStream shop that opened in Brighton in 2012 – closed its doors last year. Its closure was held up as a victory for the BDS movement internationally, having attracted weekly protests by dedicated Palestine solidarity activists.
A company shake-up
SodaStream, however, appears to be changing tack on a number of fronts. In April 2015, the company announced it would be changing its labelling to reflect the West Bank origin of any products produced in Ma’ale Adumim.
Such labelling will be short-lived, however, since the company last year announced its imminent departure from the West Bank altogether citing commercial considerations, with the transferral of operations to a factory in the Southern Negev region of Israel.
BDS campaigners argue that the company’s withdrawal from the West Bank is a testament to their efforts, with SodaStream’s links to the settlement economy an embarrassment internationally. Last year CEO Birnbaum even admitted the factory’s location had become “a pain in the ass.” The closure of SodaStream’s West Bank factory is unlikely to quell criticism of the company, however, as its operation in the Negev, within Israel, has already attracted a huge amount of negative publicity.
SodaStream’s new factory is situated in Lehavim, close to the Bedouin city of Rahat, a township in the Negev which is blighted by high unemployment and is lacking in basic services and infrastructure. As a consequence, the company has been hailed as a much needed source of employment for the Bedouin community in the area. Yet this overlooks the overall situation for the community.
Since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, policy towards the Palestinian Bedouin community in its midst has been demonstrably clear. In 1953, the Land Appropriation Law saw countless Bedouin villages in the Negev expropriated by the state, whilst in 1963 Israeli general Moshe Dayan spoke of transforming the Bedouin into an “urban proletariat” with the implicit destruction of their rural way of life.
Discrimination towards the Bedouin has been well documented by the ADVA Center for Information on Equality and Social Justice in Israel, which claims that Bedouins are completely excluded from Israel’s development plans “as if they constituted a group that was entirely superfluous to the Israeli economy and society.”
In 2011 the Prawer Plan was announced, with the objective of forcibly removing up to 70,000 Bedouins from “unrecognised villages” in the Negev, which are not recognised by the Israeli state and as such have no state-provided infrastructure, and relocating them to recognised townships such as Rahat.
Although the Prawer Plan was officially shelved in 2013 after popular protests, the proposal looks set to be back on the table with the new far-right-wing government. The demolitions of unrecognised Bedouin villages have also continued unabated.
Development in the Lehavim industrial zone next to Rahat has been explicitly linked to the Prawer Plan, with Israeli officials stating that Bedouins resettled from unrecognised villages will be able to depend on employment within its factories for their livelihood.
Viewed in this context, despite its move, SodaStream is continuing to participate in Israeli policies of colonisation and displacement, be that in the West Bank or within Israel itself. Indeed, companies that invest in the Negev are rewarded with generous government grants, tax breaks and subsidies, with incentives very similar to those that do business within the settlements.
SodaStream’s withdrawal from the West Bank does not appear to mark a departure in the company’s dubious record. According to a researcher investigating the treatment of Palestinian workers by SodaStream, conditions in the Negev are remarkably similar to those in the Ma’ale Adumim settlement, making any cries of victory for BDS rather premature.
According to the researcher, who wishes to remain anonymous: “SodaStream projects an image of coexistence, providing jobs to Palestinians in the context of high unemployment and poverty. The company ignores the matter of location, that is, a settlement factory surrounded by the West Bank, and now the Negev, where many Bedouin live in “unrecognized villages” with no government services. These locations have different histories but are subject to similar laws of confinement, home demolitions and restrictions on development.”
The position of the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC) on SodaStream also remains clear: SodaStream is complicit in the ethnic cleansing of Bedouin communities and in policies remarkably similar to those of apartheid South Africa.
It fully supports a continued boycott of the company. In an interview for Ethical Consumer, the BNC stated: “Far from reducing its direct contribution to human rights abuses, SodaStream’s factory in the Rahat area in the Naqab (Negev) amounts to conscious participation in Israel’s plans to ethnically cleanse tens of thousands of Bedouin Palestinian citizens of Israel from their ancestral lands. The Prawer Plan, in particular, aims to forcibly displace entire Bedouin communities and to concentrate them in Bantustans, a policy that has been widely condemned by the UN, the European Parliament and leading human rights organisations.”[14 - by email]
Boycott SodaStream, Support BDS
Through its continuous complicity in human rights abuses, SodaStream arguably underlines the importance of supporting the BDS call entirely, i.e. boycotting all Israeli goods not just those that come from settlements. With the complete transferral of SodaStream’s operations from the West Bank to the Negev forecast for the autumn, this is definitely something to consider.
Charlotte Perkins is a human rights campaigner and freelance journalist based in Sussex, UK. She visited Palestine in May 2015. Find out more about the movement by visiting www.bdsmovement.net and join your local activist networks.