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The cynical use of Palestinian workers in the SodaStream controversy

As a rule, Palestinians working for Israelis in the West Bank hate the settlements and the occupation. But they have to feed their families, so they swallow their pride.

Palestinians workers walk in the early morning next to the Wall and an Israeli military tower to cross the Eyal Israeli military checkpoint, November 2011 (photo: Activestills)

Palestinians workers walk in the early morning next to the Wall and an Israeli military tower to cross the Eyal Israeli military checkpoint, November 2011 (photo: Activestills)

Supporters of the occupation have found a new set of spokesmen: the Palestinian workers at the West Bank factory owned by the Israeli company SodaStream, of BDS and Scarlett Johansson fame. Reporters from The Christian Science Monitor, The Telegraph and other media outlets talked to some of the 500 Palestinians employed at the Mishor Adumim plant, and quoted them saying they were against the boycott. It was threatening their livelihood. They would have a hard time finding a job at a Palestinian-owned company and no chance at all of finding one that paid as well as SodaStream, which, they said, treated them fairly.

“Palestinian workers back Scarlett Johansson’s opposition to SodaStream boycott,” read The Monitor’s headline. “’We need 1,000 SodaStreams around here,’” read The Telegraph’s, taken from a quote by a Palestinian contractor at the plant.

These were news stories in highly reputable media, their treatment of the issue was balanced, the quotes from the Palestinians – many taken while they were outside the plant – seemed credible. To people who don’t understand the occupation (and they include even intelligent, informed, liberal-minded folks like Johansson), this is very persuasive testimony. And so the hasbaratists have jumped on it. Honest Reporting, one of the most successful of the many pro-Israel, anti-Arab “media watchdogs,” stamped the Palestinians’ accounts all over its website in posts such as “Fighting BDS – SodaStream Workers Speak Out” and “SodaStream shows that BDS is the real obstacle to peace,”

Butter wouldn’t melt in these propagandists’ mouths. To understate things, it is rather cynical using those Palestinian workers as a weapon against the boycott and, by extension, on behalf of the settlements and occupation. Cynical because those Palestinians don’t support the settlements or occupation in the slightest. Some put the issue out of their minds, some are reluctant to talk about it out loud, but most of them, if the boss isn’t looking, will tell you that of course they’re against the settlements and Israeli rule, but they have to feed their families.

The Christian Science Monitor found one Palestinian worker at SodaStream who said as much.

I’m ashamed I’m working there,” he says. “I feel this is our land, there should be no [Israeli] factory on this land.”

I heard similar things myself in January 2010, during the so-called settlement freeze, from several Palestinian workers building new housing in Modi’in Illit and Givat Ze’ev. From my story in The Jerusalem Post  (the Palestinians all go under pseudonyms):

If I could work in Ramallah for half the money, I’d do it, but there’s no work,” says Taher.

“It hurts me that they’re building the settlements, but I have 10 children to feed,” says Ibrahim. “Forget it, there’s no freeze. The settlements are like cancer – they’ve spread too far to be stopped.”

“Of course I’m against the settlements, but I have no choice; I have to feed my family,” says Ghassan.

And however fair SodaStream may be to its Palestinian workers, fairness is anything but the rule among Israeli employers in the West Bank, especially building contractors, according to what I heard from Salwa Alenat, head of the Palestinian desk at the Israeli NGO Kav LaOved (Workers’ Hot Line):

They have the same legal rights as Israeli workers, but most of them get cheated one way or another. Some get paid half the minimum wage, some get a third. There’s a widespread practice of not paying overtime, not giving sick leave or vacation leave or severance pay. Palestinians have very little redress, so a lot of these employers think they can get away with anything. They make workers do all sorts of extremely risky things. I have dozens of cases of Palestinians who’ve been badly injured on the job and gotten nothing – no medical treatment and no compensation.”

Still, as bad as work conditions tend to be on Israel-run building sites in the West Bank, Alenat told me that the fight to get hired was so desperate that some Palestinian job-seekers were known to inform on their rivals to Israeli authorities.

And they were all against the settlement freeze, such as it was, just like they’re no doubt all against the boycott, too. But not because they’re in favor of the settlements taking their people’s land, and not because they like Israeli soldiers being their masters. None of them like that, and most of them hate it. They have to feed their families, that’s all, so they swallow their pride.

I wish there were a way of ending the theft of the Palestinians’ land, and their freedom, and their pride by means other than the boycott. I have no desire to take away anybody’s job, Palestinian or Jew. But the boycott is working where elections, demonstrations, words, Palestinian non-violence and Obama all failed. If somebody can show me a way to bring down the occupation that doesn’t cost anyone his job – and that isn’t a proven failure – I will gladly support it. But no one has yet. So until then, I will see the boycott not as something to rejoice over, but as the lesser of two evils, the greater one being the humiliation Israel imposes on the Palestinians, even those who work at SodaStream.

For more +972 coverage of the SodaStream controversy:
Scarlett Johansson is new poster girl for ‘pro-Israel’ advocacy
5 things I learned from the Scarlett Johansson/SodaStream affair
Scarlett Johansson chooses SodaStream over Oxfam

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    1. Joel

      “We need 1,000 SodaStreams around here,’”

      So progressive, well paying businesses are welcome in the West Bank, so long as the business isn’t owned by Israelis.

      Reply to Comment
      • Johnboy

        “So progressive, well paying businesses are welcome in the West Bank, so long as the business isn’t owned by Israelis.”


        Think about it, Joel.

        Think about what international humanitarian law is supposed to be about.

        Israel seized this territory by force, making it the Occupying Power.

        And an occupation is **supposed** to be a temporary state of affairs, it is not **supposed** to be permanent.

        And so one of the aims of int’l humanitarian law is to prohibit practices that would tempt an occupier into thinking that it’s a jolly good idea to keep the occupation going forever.

        You know, like an occupier who seizes territory and then finds that – Gosh! How nice! – it can profit handily by expropriating land for its **own** benefit.

        For its **own** businesses.

        International humanitarian law prohibits such practices, and it is right to do so.

        Reply to Comment
        • Bar

          Israel seized this land in a defensive war after warning the Jordanians to stay out of the war. The Jordanians had never secured borders with Israel and as per international consensus were occupiers of this territory. There was no sovereign. After the war, the international community determined that Israel would not have to give up all of this territory and the part it did give up would be given up only when all its neighbors would agree to live in peace with it. Those points are outlined in UNSCR 242 and 338. This factory is in territory that may or may not be given up in a peace deal, but what is clear is that this remains disputed territory.

          Reply to Comment
        • Joel

          Yeah. Well.
          When the international community equally condemns China’s occupation of Tibet and Sinkiang, Morocco’s occupation of the Western Sahara and Turkey’s occupation of Northern Cyprus, than I’ll start giving more creedence to international law.

          Reply to Comment
      • greg wilkinson

        Many of the workers who build the Wall / Fence that runs across their land and cuts it off from Israel (and other countries) are also Palestinians. They dont do that because they want the wall, and thousands now risk arrest every day by trying to get through it or around the wall to work in Israel. If it were less impossible for Palestinian businesses to thrive in the West Bank, they would not have to grit their teeth and work for what most Palestinians understandably regard as the enemy. So…an equal, independent state for Palestinians, or one democratic state for both Israelis and Palestinians

        Reply to Comment
    2. Steffen Bach

      The article mentions a worker who is struggling to feed 10! children and so has no choice but to work in the settlement at the Sodastream factory. Anybody, anywhere in the world with 10 kids would have a problem, so how about making do with 2 or 3 kids? The 10 kids issue is a deliberate Palestinian strategy to outgrow the Jewish population and thus win an ethnic war in the areas.

      Reply to Comment
      • JG

        Tell that the Haredim who make 10 state financed kids to win a “ethnic war”…

        Reply to Comment
    3. “The settlements are like cancer – they’ve spread too far to be stopped.”

      “They have the same legal rights as Israeli workers, but most of them get cheated one way or another. Some get paid half the minimum wage, some get a third. There’s a widespread practice of not paying overtime, not giving sick leave or vacation leave or severance pay. Palestinians have very little redress, so a lot of these employers think they can get away with anything. They make workers do all sorts of extremely risky things.”

      Combined, these quotes suggest the trajectory of future conflict, one I think inevitable, although I hope to be wrong. Yet civil resistance needs economic integration to be effective. Both in the American South and in South Africa local businessmen catering to and employing the structurally excluded were among those urging the establishment to accommodate to some degree. Palestinian protest nonviolence has been surgically isolated, a showing of the flag but no socio-economic hit to those in control; thus those harmed in the demonstrations indeed become martyrs, for that is one of the few outcomes of any apparent (quite limited) effect.

      You need economic integration to get anywhere, a faint against Greater Israel for longer term goal. All of this, including the fight among the restricted class for jobs, played out in early labor union development as well as organized civil resistance. I cannot see how this stage can be avoided here.

      Which leads to “the humiliation Israel imposes on the Palestinians, even those who work at SodaStream.” But removing the structural oppression of the occupation will not remove such humiliation, merely redirect it to other slapping hands. Actually, organization against Israeli businesses may be the easier route, albeit under false utopian promise.

      If SodaStream policies are actualized as detailed, other Israeli businesses may come to despise the company. Jews are just like everyone else. Business is business. People are commodities in the small.

      My greatest worry is the price. The West Bank will not be South Africa, and there is hope in the lesser population density of the former. The road will be new, and can only be discovered in the traveling.

      Reply to Comment
    4. richard witty

      Thanks for a sober article rather than just snark.

      “Lesser of evils”, “as fair as sodastream is”.

      The valid angle from my perspective on sodastream itself is “while there is an occupation, is it better or worse that 500 more Palestinians are unemployed”

      The boycott is potentially the lesser of evils, IF it absolutely adheres to any effort to reform, rather than proceed to an effort for revolution (revolution meaning elimination of israel as self-governing).

      If Bds does contribute to ultimate reform then proponents face a different moral consequence, to likely active appeal to actual antisemitism, to boycott as siege rather than as education.

      Its close to a surge attempt by some.

      And there ARE other ways to end occupation, necessary to end occupation, including educating for mutual sympathy and genuine recipect, electoral efforts, joint development efforts.

      I think of the boycott as a second wall, not only a morally minded less violent effort at reform.

      Actual and pots.goal friendships have been broken by the vehemence and litmus test of Bds. Many potential allies for reform have been utterly alienated.

      Scarlett Johansen is a case in point. She is sympathetic to Palestinian rights. I doubt highly that she will go near the kind of support for it that might be possible.

      Partially because rather than criticize the opportunistic uses of her statement, the radical left have gone after her personally, also opportunistically.

      Reply to Comment
      • BOOZ

        Richard :

        “Actual and pots.goal friendships have been broken by the vehemence and litmus test of Bds. Many potential allies for reform have been utterly alienated.”

        You can count me in . And from my point of view, this is final.

        Reply to Comment
    5. Bar

      Kudos to Derfner. He is right and we should eliminate all Arab poverty right away! Poverty in the Arab world is clearly Israel’s fault and if the Palestinian per capita income is similar to that of Egypt’s, Syria’s and Jordan’s, then that’s also Israel’s fault. Israel should stop stealing “Palestinian land!”

      Back in the 1920s when Jews were buying land at exorbitant prices, not stealing it while losing their sons in wars fomented by the Arabs, they were developing agriculture and industry with the sweat of their brow and with Jewish funding from the West. One of the outcomes was that Arabs moved into areas in Mandatory Palestine where standards of living were higher and improved their lot.

      Clearly, that was the Jews’ fault. And in those areas where they didn’t employ Arabs, that was because the Jews were bigots. What else? When you employ you humiliate and when you don’t, you humiliate.

      During the Jordanian occupation of Judea and Samaria, when Palestinians had no infrastructure, no universities and no representation under Jordanian rule, it was understood that their suffering was Israel’s fault because they won the war the Arabs and then the Arab states launched. Their poverty and that of the Palestinians still forced by their Arab brethren to live in camps in Arab countries into the fourth generation is blamed on Israel for “stealing their land.”

      And now? Now it’s Israel’s fault that it builds homes and has a modern economy. How humiliating to have them employ Palestinians who should have the freedom to work for other Palestinians instead. Freedom! After all, Abbas is into his 10th year since he was elected for 4 and Hamas is planning on the same in Gaza.

      So where would Palestinian workers work if Israel didn’t exist? Who knows. Maybe the same place the Jordanian and Egyptian workers work? I hear they really developed those economies well and there’s massive employment. That’s why prior to Oslo, Egyptian per capita incomes were half of Palestinians’ who were living under Israeli rule.

      Did I miss something? Nazis? Genocide? Ethnic cleaning?

      Humiliation? For that you would look at the Palestinian leadership who steal funds meant for their people. At their military wings that use precious resources to equip themselves and their tunnels for terrorism. At their educational system that brainwashes poor kids to hate YOU and your kind. Jews, that is. And so on and so forth.

      There are simply no words, Mr. Derfner. None. Boycott? Boycott the PA and Hamas if you want peace. Any other conclusion is simply unrealistic. It is a dream that will lead to the mother of all wars. Look at Syria if you want a preview.

      Reply to Comment
      • Richard Witty

        You still believe that story that the majority of Palestinians are recent immigrants, attracted by Jewish money?

        And, not in the range of 2%, with 98% describing long history of family residence?

        Reply to Comment
        • Bar

          Richard, that’s what you took away from my comment?

          In answer to your question, I don’t know what the figures are regarding the Arabs who refer to themselves as Palestinians presently. It might be 2% immigration, but that’s highly unlikely, and it might be 30%, and that might be unlikely. If you go back a couple of hundred years, it might be more. Does it matter? Not to me. My comment was factually correct: many Arabs moved to areas which were growing from an economic standpoint in Mandatory Palestine. This isn’t unusual, it’s happening right now in the US, for example, where people are uprooting families and moving to areas where there’s greater employment, job opportunities and greater potential opportunities to build service businesses to support these bustling areas and their more affluent workers. Why would you imagine that it was different a century ago in a much poorer place?

          Please focus on the matter at hand: the non-humiliation of the Arabs who work for Jewish companies.

          Reply to Comment
          • richard witty

            Palestinians are people, almost all with real connections to their homeplaces.

            The theme that they are recent immigrants primarily makes it possible to justify peersecutorial treatment.

            We have two options how to proceed from the holocaust (or collective reference).

            1. Never again to us (only us)
            2. Never again to anyone (including us)

            Its significant.

            Reply to Comment
          • Bar

            “Palestinians are people, almost all with real connections to their homeplaces.”

            Nobody said they aren’t people. Nobody disrespected them. Nobody disrespected anything. I merely pointed out something which is factual and historic. That Finkelstein and other self-interested parties made a big stink out of Peters’ book isn’t my problem and has nothing to do with history. Some Palestinians have deep roots in what is now Israel. Some don’t. Some moved around within Mandatory and pre-Mandatory Palestine and some didn’t. Most Palestinians alive today have never set foot inside Israel and most have not even set foot in Judea and Samaria. If they maintain emotional ties to places from which they descend – real or unreal – I respect that and understand it. I hope for the day they may travel freely into Israel and Israelis can welcome them without fear, just as I hope for the day that Israelis can hop on a train to Damascus, Beirut or other parts of the Arab world without fear.

            “The theme that they are recent immigrants primarily makes it possible to justify peersecutorial treatment.”

            Not true. If that is the case, then presumably that’s your explanation for the fact the entire Palestinian leadership, political and religious, is trying to deny Jewish history?

            My guess is rather that what leads to what your refer to as “persecution” is actually concern about security and attempts to ensure security for Israelis. In other situations, such as Palestinians working for those Israelis who, unlike Sodastream, treat them poorly, this has nothing to do with Palestinian history and everything to do with the same thing you see in factories in China, Taiwan, Bangladesh, Thailand, etc.: greed and violations of law and ethics.

            “We have two options how to proceed from the holocaust (or collective reference).

            1. Never again to us (only us)
            2. Never again to anyone (including us)

            Its significant.”

            Please leave the Holocaust out of this. There is zero relevance to this discussion. Look up Einsatzsgruppen if you wish to quickly eliminate this talk of any parallels.

            Reply to Comment
          • In about 1996, an Israeli grad student told me in London that there was a debate going on in his country, whether Israel had to go it alone or not. Post suicide bombing war of 2000-6, go it alone seems to have prevailed politically. So your second option, “never again to anyone (including us),” while mouthed, is not actualized in even matters of the rule of law in the West Bank. I don’t know if any other country has had to face this decision. Not to be the global avatar of option 2, but just making it so in individual West Bank cases. That in itself is proving enormously difficult, and it is a difficulty we all face, not just Israel, not just Jews.

            As to the “recent immigration” ploy, that is just an attempt to erase multi-generational residency for the Return. The issue is not “never again” but “our warrant trumps your warrant.”

            I see this conflict as evolution confronting itself. And that is why I attend 972.

            Reply to Comment
          • Bar

            “My warrant trumps your warrant.”

            Do you enjoy quoting Palestinian leaders? Next you’ll be telling us Jews have no historic connection to the Temple Mount.

            Reply to Comment
    6. mcohen

      one approach would be for israeli businesses and factories in the west bank to lease property from the owners.100 year leases or 50 year leases would provide employment and at the same time benefit the general arab population with a steady income flow.

      Reply to Comment
    7. RobertoH

      What if Palestinians recognized the de facto 47-year-old “one state” solution and demanded Israeli citizenship rights? Maybe “normalization” is the road forward. The wannabe Palestinian bourgeoisie wouldn’t like it, as neither would the Israeli bourgeoisie, threatened by a multiethnic working class, but why should any worker, Palestinian, Jewish, or other, care about them?

      Reply to Comment
    8. shaun

      Exploitation or not, it’s purely an economic decision.
      972 contributors are happy to play the “always blame Israel game” but they vary rarely want to carry their ideals to their natural conclusion.
      If Soda stream ceased options tomorrow, by the weekend there would be an extra 500 Palestinians out of work. This would be seen as a victory by the Humanitarians and advocated of International law.

      To those happy to claim that there are South African parallels, actually there is one. Pepsi left South Africa during apartheid. After fall of the white regime Pepsi attempted to return and hired thousands of workers. The plant was totally run By black empowerment organizations with massive government and international grants. It failed miserably and left South Africa for good. No big deal, only a few thousand South Africans out of work. But hey BDS worked…

      Reply to Comment
    9. Richard Witty

      Relative to the title of your article, I hope that you include a criticism of many on the left that have opportunistically misrepresented Sodastream and Scarlett Johansen for their political ends, as well.

      I personally cannot support any organized BDS, on Israel, on the settlements, any.

      I cannot regard the settlers as an “other”, as just political pawns, and not also as human beings.

      The discussion of what to do with the settlers employs a racial and national screen to determine if they deserve their day in a color-blind court.

      Its callous, cavalier, accepted because “everyone knows”. But, that is the process that we have to break, the “everyone knows”.

      And discipline ourselves to never employ it, to actually ask, to actually humanize the “other”, every class that we give ourselves permission to dismiss.

      Reply to Comment
      • Mikesailor

        You have become quite the hypocrite. You actually punt when it comes to taking any action to ameliorate the situation. You cannot support a boycott…why? Would you or did you support the boycott against South African apartheid or did you weasel out of any commitment because they were ‘settlers’? Your inaction and support of inaction is almost worse than the callous idiots who don’t know any better. That excuse is not open to you. So, is your opposition to a boycott only because it is Jews you would be boycotting? Just a ‘tribal’ thing? And it doesn’t matter how much you supposedly ‘abhor’ the treatment and/or policy; you will meekly not condemn it or act aginanst it because you are a ‘good’Jew. I’ve ofter wondered how so may Germans could turn a blind eye during the thirties. Now, I know it doesn’t matter what ethnicity one may be.

        Reply to Comment
    10. Craig Vale

      The insidious nature of this relationship in some respects mirror some of the events of the build up to WWII in which many a Jew found themselves in a situational circumstance of violating their ethical , religious & moral beliefs in order to survive and being able to provide for their families while under extreme duress. Palestinians are put in an untenable situation by the very descendants of those who suffered greatly during the 30s & 40s” at the hands of their masters who exploit them not only for their labor but for their very identities too. It is a horrible circumstance that plays right into the hands of Israel’s right who make the risible claim that they are ” helping ” these people by providing an exploitative work environment in furtherance of an illegal occupation.
      The usual protestations and cries of ” Anti-Semite” abound when called to account for the egregious treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories. What is left for people to do who find themselves opposed to these issues?. The option of a boycott is far better as it forgoes the usual violent back and forth and provides for a (peaceful) way to make your point. Historically, hurting your adversary in the pocketbook has had a modicum of success and given the woeful progress vis-a-vis peace talks, the boycott makes sense to many.These ” Anti Semite” charges are increasingly falling on deaf ears here in the West as the Chicken Little’s on the Israeli right are running out of options as they grow hoarse.Trust me, the sky is not falling but the moral high ground once the sole possession of Israel …….IS.

      Reply to Comment
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