Now that the Oxfam-Scarlett Johansson-SodaStream controversy is finally over, it’s time to put aside the ‘he said, she said, they said’ accusations and take a closer look at some of the hard-to-hear facts.
The controversy began when actress Scarlett Johansson, a global ambassador for Oxfam, accepted an endorsement deal with SodaStream International, an Israeli company which, since 1996, has had a home carbonation production plant in Mishor Edomim, an industrial park in Ma’ale Adumim, the largest Jewish settlement in the West Bank.
Activists who support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement pressured Oxfam to drop Johansson; Oxfam urged Johansson to drop SodaStream. Objections to Johansson’s new role were futile, and her expected dismissal by Oxfam did not materialize. However, Johansson had the last word when, after eight years with Oxfam, she initiated a parting of ways.
No-one can deny that Johansson has the right to choose who she supports. However, to represent both Oxfam and SodaStream is a contradiction if you believe in justice and human rights. A statement made by her shows a lack of knowledge concerning the connection between SodaStream, the settlement enterprise, and the rights of the Palestinians:
‘I remain a supporter of economic co-operation and social interaction between a democratic Israel and Palestine. SodaStream is a company that is not only committed to the environment but to building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine, supporting neighbours working alongside each other, receiving equal pay, equal benefits and equal rights. That is what is happening in their Ma’ale Adumim factory every working day,’ she said.
Building a bridge to peace? That is more than laughable! Doesn’t Johansson realize or care that SodaStream is located in an illegal settlement, built on land that was occupied by Israel in 1967?
International law states that Israel, as an occupying power, is forbidden from altering the occupied territories in any way, including through the construction of settlements and industrial parks, except for reasons having to do with military necessity or to benefit the occupied population specifically.
To date, there are 17 Israeli industrial zones housing over 600 Israeli factories in the West Bank. WHO PROFITS, an organization which exposes industries’ involvement in the occupation, says that ‘these parks were established to explicitly serve the settlements, the Israeli economy as a whole and to strengthen Israeli control of the Occupied Palestinian Territories’.
And according to the Institute for Middle East Understanding, the Israeli ‘companies that operate in settlement Industrial zones enjoy low rent, tax incentives, and other forms of government support, as well as lax enforcement of environmental laws’ Industrial zones in the West Bank also enforce a minimum of labour regulations.
The Palestinians are in a Catch-22 situation. Due to high unemployment and economic difficulties in the West Bank, many Palestinians have no choice but to work for low wages in Israeli industrial zones that are built on Palestinian land.
Additionally, they do not have the same civil rights that Israeli employees enjoy, and are dependent on employers for work permits, making them subject to exploitation and discrimination. Fearful of losing their work permits and jobs on the settlements, their demands for enforcement of workers’ rights fall silent. Caught in the middle of dirty politics, their work, ironically, enables the settlement enterprise to grow.
Does that sound like a bridge to peace? In spite of SodaStream and Johansson’s claim of this so-called bridge between Palestinians and Israelis, WHO PROFITS describes SodaStream in a less flattering way.
Their 2011 report about SodaStream states that in three consecutive years, Kav LaOved (an Israeli NGO which protects the rights of disadvantaged workers employed by Israeli companies) reported that the 442 Palestinian workers at SodaStream were employed under harsh working conditions which included below minimum wages, long work days, and revolving-door policies. The report said that they were ‘at the bottom of the hierarchy in the factory and fearful of being dismissed’.
SodaStream’s claim that the company is economically beneficial to Palestinians is questionable. How can that be possible, if the company pays taxes to Israel and the Ma’ale Adumim municipality rather than to the Palestinian Authority? How can it be possible if the Palestinian workers are paid below minimum wage? Is there anything more precious than one’s land, the source of one’s livelihood? How can it be beneficial to those Palestinians whose land is occupied, and is now being used for settlements and industrial zones?
None of the three players of this drama came out looking good.
SodaStream, a company with 25 plants worldwide and customers in 45 countries, has been the subject of scrutiny by supporters of Palestine. Will the fact that it has a plant in an illegal settlement damage its name internationally? Time will tell.
Johansson, who once advocated for justice, selfishly chose financial gain over human rights.
And was Oxfam’s hesitation to let Johansson go a matter of not wanting to lose their money-maker? Their claim that they are opposed to trade from Israeli settlements because ‘they further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support’, somehow no longer seems to ring true.