Ramallah, occupied Palestinian territories – Scarlett Johansson recently sparked an international uproar by appearing in a Super Bowl commercial for SodaStream, a company that operates in Ma’ale Adumim, a large Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank.
Yet there is no end in sight for Palestinians working for SodaStream or other businesses operating in Israel’s settlements, which are considered illegal under international law.
Johansson had, for eight years, been a global ambassador for the anti-poverty group Oxfam International. But when the group criticised her decision to appear in the SodaStream commercial, Johansson stepped down.
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The outcry surrounding her decision has proved immensely divisive. Pro-Israel groups have defended Johansson and SodaStream by pointing to the comparatively high wages Palestinian workers receive from such companies; others denounced the 29-year-old Avengers star for refusing to respect Palestinian civil society’s call to honour the global campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel.
Several media reports have suggested that SodaStream’s Palestinian workers do not feel exploited. Yet this assertion was disputed by several people who spoke to Al Jazeera.
“Honestly, we’re not thinking about the boycott,” said Ahmed Issa, a former SodaStream employee.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Issa explained that the “only thing that compelled me to work at SodaStream was the lack of alternatives”.
The 28-year-old worked in SodaStream’s Ma’ale Adumim factory from late September 2013 until early December, adding that he frequently worked 12-13 hour days.
Although much of the media coverage has focused on the comparatively high wages of SodaStream employees, Issa claims that, for entry-level employees “there is not much difference in the salaries between [SodaStream] and Palestinian factories. Most of us work there because there are just fewer employment opportunities in [Palestinian] businesses”.
With respect to working conditions, SodaStream gives mandatory safety training sessions to employees, but does not always enforce them, according to Issa. The working environment is “a lot less safe than they claim”.
occupation. But they cannot afford to personally boycott work opportunities.”]
He is presently in a legal battle with the company, he says, because his contract was terminated without reason.
No other workers who spoke to Al Jazeera were willing to go on the record.
According to Mustafa Balhan, the legal coordinator for the General Palestinian Union in Jericho, the majority of Palestinian employees at SodaStream work renewable seasonal contracts that last three months each.
Palestinian workers in settlements are more aware than ever of the growing international boycott movement, he added: “After all this noise about the American actress, everyone knows.”
Balhan also commented that Palestinian workers in settlements had few other choices. “As a union, we cannot tell them where to work,” he said. “We just try to ensure that they have their proper rights wherever they work. I think most workers support the boycott because they are against [Israel’s] occupation. But they cannot afford to personally boycott work opportunities.”
A recent position paper published by Who Profits, an organisation that tracks Israel’s economic practices in the occupied Palestinian territories, found that 82 percent of Palestinians working in Israeli settlements would quit those jobs if viable alternatives were available.
Omar Barghouti is an outspoken Palestinian activist and founding committee member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. He said the fact that “tens of thousands” of Palestinians work in settlements is the direct result of Israeli policy.
For decades, Barghouti observed, Israel has been “systematically destroying Palestinian industry and agriculture, confiscating our most fertile lands and richest water reserves, and imposing extreme restrictions of movement preventing many from reaching their workplaces”.
Under the conditions of Israel’s occupation, Barghouti concluded, the Palestinian economy can scarcely produce job opportunities capable of competing with Israeli settlement industries.
Others have pointed out that the legality of businesses operating in settlements is not contingent on the availability of labour rights or the quality of working conditions.
Elizabeth Koek is a senior legal researcher at Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights organisation that documents human rights abuses in the occupied West Bank. She explained that the debate surrounding SodaStream had been misguided.
“Neither the working conditions, nor the pay of Palestinian workers employed in settlements negates the illegality of the settlement enterprise,” she said.
Israel’s economic policies in the West Bank, Koek added, deny Palestinians “the right to economic self-determination” and are “carried out for the benefit of Israeli citizens both in Israel proper and in the settlements, rather than for the benefit of the occupied population, as international law dictates”.
Although SodaStream did not reply to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment, the company’s future in the West Bank appears to be uncertain.
While Ma’ale Adumim will likely remain under Israeli control in the event of a two-state solution ever being agreed upon, companies operating in the occupied Palestinian territories are facing an increasing backlash.
BDS has spread quickly over the past year, particularly throughout US and European universities and academic associations. As swathes of activists take up the call to boycott, Israeli businesses are quietly fearful. Israel’s government has responded by doubling its efforts to encourage commerce in its West Bank colonies.
Daniel Birnbaum, SodaStream’s CEO, said it was struggling to establish factories in Israel proper, according to the Israeli daily Haaretz. He accused Israel’s government of reneging on its promise to provide tens of millions of shekels to establish another factory in the Negev region of southern Israel, where its 500-person strong workforce would draw significantly from the local Arab Bedouin population.
SodaStream recently issued a profit warning, noting that its net income is projected to fall $12.5m short of its $54m goal. The company’s shares on the Nasdaq also reportedly sunk 26 percent in January, though it is unclear how much sales have been affected by the boycott campaign.
Many have debated the extent of the boycott’s toll on Israel’s economy. Samia Botmeh is an economics professor at Birzeit University and a policy adviser at Al-Shabaka, a Palestinian policy network. She told Al Jazeera that “the boycott has had a significant effect on Israel’s settlement economy in the West Bank”.
“There is certainly a link between SodaStream’s losses and the Scarlett Johansson controversy,” she said.
Alluding to the European Union’s ongoing debate about boycotting products made in Israeli settlements, Botmeh added that the economic “decline has a magnified immediate, but also long-term, impact”.
In January, Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid warned that Israel’s growing economic isolation “will hurt the pocketbook of each of us”.
Yet for as long as Israel’s settlements are present in occupied East Jerusalem and the wider West Bank, Palestinians will feel they have no option but to work in them.
“We would love to apply the boycott ourselves, but our needs are too dire,” concluded Issa. “We have to survive.”
Follow Patrick O Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_