Rahat, Al-Hazeel – SodaStream, the Israeli company that has drawn criticism for operating in the occupied West Bank, will be ending its operations there and is opening a new factory in southern Israel.
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) – which uses economic pressure in its pursuit to end the Israeli occupation – has targeted SodaStream, which produces home soda-making machines, for its factory’s location in Mishor Adumim, an illegal Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank.
Standing in a plush meeting room in the new SodaStream factory, CEO Daniel Birnbaum refuted criticism of the company. “There’s no scandal,” Birnbaum told members of the media. “It’s a legitimate factory [in the West Bank]. We’re not breaking any international law, but in the meantime we decided to build a new factory here in the Negev.”
He said the company had moved to the new factory as it was “cost effective”, but admitted BDS had played some role in the move, though he claims it was “minimal”.
Birnbaum added that SodaStream’s presence should have been encouraged in the occupied West Bank. He has referred to the West Bank factory as “an island of peace” where Israelis and Palestinians worked “in harmony”.
The West Bank factory officially closed last week, resulting in 470 Palestinian workers losing their jobs. The BDS movement claims the decision is a direct result of its pressure.
“This closure is a clear-cut BDS victory against an odiously complicit Israeli company,” said Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian human rights activist and co-founder of the BDS movement. Barghouti added that the movement had succeeded in pressuring major retailers across North America and Europe, including Macy’s in the US and John Lewis in the UK, to stop stocking SodaStream products. He said SodaStream also closed its flagship store in Brighton in the UK as a result of regular protests. Soros Fund Management, an investment management firm founded by billionaire investor George Soros, sold its stake in the company last year.
“After pressure from Soros’ partners in the region and the world, they dropped SodaStream and promised, in private letters so far, to issue guidelines similar to those adopted by the EU to prevent any investment into companies that sustain the Israeli occupation and settlements in particular,” Barghouti told the media last year.
Soros Fund Management did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
But this new factory, too, is proving to be controversial. BDS activists say it is located on land that the Israeli government confiscated from Bedouins in the 1950s. The factory is surrounded by 34 Bedouin villages, which are unrecognised by the Israeli government and are threatened with eviction, but no final date of eviction has been set as the Israeli government’s plans have been put on hold.
SodaStream sought to transfer all Palestinian workers to the new Israeli plant, but most were unable to do so because of the very long commute from the occupied West Bank and the difficulty obtaining work permits from the Israeli government, which regularly prevents Palestinians in the West Bank free movement across its checkpoints.
Israel granted the company 130 work permits, but only 37 of the Palestinian staff from the West Bank factory were able to meet the security requirements, which exclude single people and those aged 22 and younger.
Those 37 staff travel up to four hours each day to work in the new factory. Tahsin Hanadi, 38, is the only woman among the group: “I leave home at 4:30am each day and I am home at 8:30pm,” she said, detailing a 16-hour ordeal that involves crossing an Israeli checkpoint and going through security checks. She was not angry about the factory’s move, but admitted it was harder for her to travel so far each day for work.
will hurt poor Palestinian workers is disingenuous and intended to divert attention from the illegality of all Israeli colonies in the occupied Palestinian territories.”]
Palestinian Taqsim Mohsin, 27, said he travelled to the factory each day from Abu Dis, a neighbourhood in East Jerusalem that was separated from the city when Israel built its illegal separation wall. He travels three-and-a-half hours a day and works 12 hours.
“BDS is hurting us; many of us can’t get work in the West Bank and wages are so low. We need this work,” Mohsin told Al Jazeera.
But Barghouti disagreed that BDS is to blame, and said high unemployment in the occupied West Bank was a direct result of settlement activity and the separation wall: “Israel’s occupation has left hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in dire conditions of poverty. After losing their agricultural lands to settlements, thousands of Palestinians were compelled to work in Israeli projects, including in settlements to subsist,” Barghouti told Al Jazeera.
“The Israeli argument that boycotting the colonies [Jewish settlements] will hurt poor Palestinian workers is disingenuous and intended to divert attention from the illegality of all Israeli colonies in the occupied Palestinian territories.”
SodaStream’s new $90m factory near Rahat, of which the Israeli government contributed $20m according to Birnbaum, was built in a new industrial zone touted by the Israeli government as a solution to sky-high unemployment rates among the Bedouin in the Negev. Forty-seven percent of Bedouin men are unemployed, and 87 percent of women are also unemployed, according to official Israeli government figures.
Human rights lawyer and PhD student Rawia abu Rabia said the origins of high levels of unemployment among Bedouin women began when Israel forced people off their lands: “Forcing women off their lands deprived them of their traditional roles … and left them with no options – no training and often no education.”
She said many Bedouin women simply had not attended school until recently.
Rahat was established by the Israeli government in 1971 as a planned urban township for Bedouins. This came after the government seized the territory, originally known as al-Hazeel, by evicting Bedouins, who previously led a nomadic lifestyle, from their homes. Many of the Bedouins were forced by the Israelis out of the Negev and became refugees inside what is today the occupied West Bank.
Rahat, like the Bedouin villages surrounding it, has some of the poorest living conditions in Israel.
Atiyeh al-A’sam, head of the regional council for the unrecognised Bedouin villages, said that while industrial zones providing employment were important, so was ensuring that Bedouins maintain and develop their agricultural skills.
He said Israel had been discouraging this, by restricting grazing and forcing Bedouins to keep livestock on tiny pockets of land. Industrial parks, like Idan Hanegev, where SodaStream is now located, were not the solution, A’sam told Al Jazeera.
Lawyer and Bedouin community leader Atwa al-Hag Abou Anzeh told a group of journalists that he was critical of the industrial zone, because of the Bedouins’ forced removal from their homes to a more urban centre in Rahat: “It was clear when Rahat was established [that] the state wanted to concentrate us in one place and take our land.
Their attempts to help with employment are insults to our intelligence, and you cannot create a partnership like the industrial zone between rich and poor. You must provide the poor with the right conditions to leave the circle of poverty,” he argued.
Meanwhile, Barghouti said moving the factory inside Israel would not alleviate pressure from the BDS movement: “The BDS campaign against SodaStream will continue, as the company is moving to a location where it is directly colluding in the ethnic cleansing of Bedouin Palestinian citizens of Israel in the Naqab [Negev]. SodaStream’s move is part of the Israeli government’s plans to steal the traditional lands of Bedouin Palestinian communities in the Naqab, forcibly displacing them and concentrating them in ‘urban’ areas.”
But Birnbaum defended the new factory’s location. “There was nothing here when we laid the cornerstone a few years ago,” he said. “This was just desert. No one lived here, there was no water – nothing.”
But historian and director of the Negev office of Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, Thabet Abu Rass confirmed to Al Jazeera that the land on which the industrial park had been built had been confiscated from the Bedouin by Israel in the 1950s. According to Abu Rass, 70,000 Bedouin citizens were living in 34 villages that predated the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948: “The state of Israel considers the villages unrecognised and the inhabitants trespassers on state land.”
“Bedouin [Palestinians] are the most vulnerable community in Israel, and for over 60 years the indigenous Bedouins have faced a state policy of displacement, home demolitions and dispossession of ancestral land.”