Twenty-nine year old Khadir Yousef gets up at three in the morning to travel from Ramallah in the West Bank to the SodaStream factory in the industrial park of Idan HaNegev, in Israel’s northern Negev. He does not return home until nine in the evening.
Dressed in a long-sleeved T-shirt and jeans, with a green security vest, he proudly shows this reporter a ready-to-ship soda-seltzer maker that the factory produces. SodaStream makes machines that carbonate home tap water in reusable bottles.
Alongside Yousef, who has worked for the factory for the past nine years, sat Teryaq (44), an Arab Israeli woman from Rahat. Sitting on her chair next to a conveyor belt, she said she has been working for the company for four and a half years. Next to her was Sharona Apterkar, an immigrant from India.
Like the magnificent Byzantine mosaic displaying images of birds and local flora that was discovered by archaeologists in 2013 near Kibbutz Beit Kama, in the Northern Negev Desert, SodaStream has built a mosaic of Israeli Jews and Arabs, Palestinians, Bedouins, Ethiopians, and Russians, who work together to produce the foot-and-a-half tall machines that turn still water into seltzer. Together, they have helped build up the fortunes of the fizzy-water firm that in August was acquired by PepsiCo for $3.2 billion.
The firm’s CEO, Daniel Birnbaum, in 2007 took the reins of the maker of home carbonation systems and rebranded them as a healthier and more environmentally friendly fizzy-water alternative to the sodas offered by competitors, which not only use massive amounts of sugar, but also sell their products in planet-killing plastic bottles. The strategy shift came in tandem with a worldwide consumer push toward healthier and more environmentally friendly products, which eventually triggered the deal, as food and beverage giants have been trying to keep up with the wave, as demand for sugar-laden soft drinks has declined.
SodaStream is “like a family,” said Yousef, a sentiment echoed also by the other workers. The company is an apparent island of peace and goodwill, removed from last week’s renewed round of clashes between Israel and Hamas, a mere 20 kilometers (some 12.5 miles) away, marked by an unprecedented barrage of rockets and mortar shells fired by Hamas and other terrorist groups from the Strip, bringing the region to the brink of another war.
Opening its doors to the media and to a cohort of ambassadors and journalists for the first time since the PepsiCo acquisition, Birnbaum, in his starched pink shirt standing out against the background of flags from Argentina, Ethiopia, and Kazakhstan, among others, talked proudly about how Israelis and Palestinians work side by side inside all four factories of the campus.
With little concern for the incessant mechanical sound of the 800-ton presses taking part in the production process, which continues operations 24/7, Birnbaum smilingly greeted his workers, shaking their hands, patting their backs, and asking how they were. To the visitors, he explained how the facility, which employs more than 1,400 people, including 110 Palestinians and 750 Bedouins, has changed the entire area surrounding the factory.
In 2013, unemployment in the area of Rahat, a Bedouin village close to the facility was about 33 percent, he said. Since the SodaStream factory was set up in 2014, unemployment in Rahat has declined to about 11%, he said.
The plant was set up in 2014 in Idan HaNegev, after Birnbaum relocated his operations from Maale Adumim, in the West Bank, following a barrage of criticism from the Boycott and Divestment Movement (BDS), who accused the firm of paying its Palestinian workers less than their Israeli counterparts.
“We moved here because we grew,” Birnbaum told reporters during the November 15 tour of the facility, rejecting BDS’ claim of victory for the move.
Some 500 Palestinians lost their jobs because of the relocation, and 74 workers were given permission to enter Israel and work within the Green Line. Even so, the number of Palestinian employees is on the rise, Birnbaum said during the tour, though obtaining the government permits necessary to employ them is a challenge.
The Idan HaNegev site was chosen, he said, to give the firm’s Palestinian employees the chance to keep working with SodaStream.
During the tour, Ethiopian Ambassador to Israel Tsegay Berha Hadera greeted, hugged, and posed for photos with some of his 326 fellow countrymen who work at the facility. In the last part of the tour, in a hall in which the parts are assembled before shipping, one of the four factories, visitors were greeted by some 800 workers, all in blue uniforms from completely different backgrounds, what Birnbaum said was his “UN plant.”
While SodaStream produces 1.2 million bottles per month in a highly automated manner, work at this last plant is kept “deliberately manual,” Birnbaum said, to make sure that even unskilled people can find a job at the plant
“It is not necessary to be an engineer to work here,” he said.
Cooperation and trust between the workers from the very different backgrounds has been created tentatively and gradually, over the years.
At the West Bank facility, eight years ago, metal detectors at the entrance scanned workers at their entry, and Israelis were afraid to work alongside Palestinians; today the atmosphere is very different, Birnbaum said.
Amna Abu Adaya (48) and Rahma Al-Turi (43), two Bedouin women from Rahat who started working at the facility around two years ago, said that they do not have any issue with other workers and added — laughing and thanking God — that they would not seek to work for any other firm, even if there were an Arab company in the area.
Birnbaum, who makes sure he interacts with his employees at work and outside work time, said that also his children interact and get to play with the children of the Palestinian workers.
Coexistence at his firm, he told The Times of Israel, is based on two elements: respect between people at all levels of the company, and the “celebration of difference.” Indeed, Birnbaum explained that nobody is discriminated against because of one’s religion, ethnicity or gender inside the facility. He described how one 23-year-old Bedouin girl, employed at the factory, manages nine men who are older than she is.
The SodaStream experiment is evidence that coexistence and cooperation are indeed possible, he said, adding how other companies should implement SodaStream’s model of cooperation so as to a foster economic peace between the Israeli and Palestinian factions.