MISHOR ADUMIM, West Bank — The SodaStream factory, situated just off the highway leading down from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, was abuzz on Sunday with journalists from across the globe trying to get a glimpse of the action.
The tour of the carbonated beverage-maker plant was organized especially for curious foreign correspondents on the eve of the Super Bowl, which featured an ad starring its glamorous spokeswoman Scarlett Johansson. The factory, SodaStream’s charismatic US-born CEO Daniel Birnbaum proudly declared, used to produce munitions for the Israeli army. It was bought in 1996 by the fizzy drink start-up, seeking to better the world by doing away with polluting plastic bottles.
A statue at the entrance to the plant, Birnbaum pointed out, encapsulated the company spirit with the immortal words of the prophet Isaiah: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
SodaStream’s business has grown exponentially since Birnbaum was hired by the private equity firm that bought the company in 2007. Under the previous management, SodaStream manufactured 20,000-30,000 counter-top soda machines a month. Now it produces that number every day.
As SodaStream’s global market expanded, so did its need for manual laborers. Today, the Mishor Adumim plant — the first of eight Israeli locations and 22 worldwide — employs 1,300 workers; 950 Arabs (450 Israeli and 500 Palestinian) and 350 Israeli Jews. Salaries and work benefits — management asserts and workers confirm — are equal for all workers in comparable jobs, regardless of ethnicity or citizenship. The factory secures Israeli work permits for its Palestinian employees as well as rides from their home and back, SodaStream’s Chief Operating Officer Yossi Azarzar told The Times of Israel.
Proponents of the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanction) campaign posit that any Israeli business located beyond the 1949 armistice frontier known as the Green Line is by definition exploitative, in addition to being illegal under international law. They castigated Johannson for representing the firm; she rejected the onslaught — declaring that “SodaStream is a company that is not only committed to the environment but to building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine” — and resigned as an ambassador for British-based charity Oxfam when they critiqued her role.
Birnbaum, the CEO, was clearly cognizant of the dispute. He spoke of Jewish-Arab coexistence as he stood next to a veiled young Arab woman working on the assembly line across from an older woman with a black head covering who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union in 1993.
Zooming in on Birnbaum and the two women, the camera crews and microphone-holding reporters overlooked another young Palestinian woman standing nearby, fitting plastic valves into a large metal tray. Nahida Fares, 28, graduated Nablus’s A-Najjah University in primary school education. She began working for Israeli companies two years ago, when she could find no work in her field in Ramallah, where she lives with her husband and infant child.
“There are no job opportunities in the West Bank,” Fares told The Times of Israel. “Even the jobs that do exist pay no more than NIS 1,500-2,000 ($430-570) a month.” Fares now earns triple those sums.
Many educated women like Fares were forced to seek work outside the home following the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000 to support the household as the Palestinian economy collapsed, she explained.
Fares’s husband, a first lieutenant in the Palestinians’ prestigious Preventive Security Force, earns NIS 2,000 ($570) per month after 10 years of service.
Given the relatively low levels of political violence in recent years, the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) has increased the number of work permits granted to Palestinians by some 37% between 2010 and 2012. Still, Palestinian men must be above the age 24 and married with a child to be eligible for work permits within Israel. Israeli workers’ unions do not protect Palestinians from exploitation by employers, critics note.
To work in a settlement, however, a Palestinian man need only be older than 18 and have no negative security record. To work in Israel, Palestinians must apply to the Israeli Population and Immigration Authority; to work in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank (like the Mishor Adumim industrial zone) they must apply to the Civil Administration, the branch of COGAT entrusted with Palestinian civilian matters. A COGAT spokesman told The Times of Israel in a written response that 24,000 permits are given to Palestinians wishing to work in the settlements on average every month. More than double that number (49,250) were allowed to work in Israel in January, mostly in the construction industry.
Fares, for instance, first began working at a laundromat in the Mishor Adumim industrial zone (where SodaStream is located), but left because of management mistreatment. At SodaStream she is much happier, working a 12-hour shift from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and receiving a 15-30 minute break for every two hours of work. Food in the cafeteria is great, she said, as she showed me the valve that she boasted is “the most important component of the soda dispenser.”
Another employee, Sa’ida, 28, began studying Hebrew in her hometown of Jericho but only started using it at the plant, where she first came in contact with Israeli Jews. Jews and Arabs mix freely here, she noted; “they even change clothes together,” she said, and blushed.
While declining to discuss the political ramifications of her sensitive employment at Mishor Adumim (working in settlements is illegal under Palestinian law), Sa’ida said she and her colleagues were wondering why SodaStream had been singled out by the media from all the other companies in the industrial zone.
“It’s because of Scarlett Johansson,” she was told.