New SodaStream factory could help destroy Bedouin agriculture

20 February 2014

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Jahalin Bedouins were already forcibly displaced to build the settlement that houses SodaStream’s existing West Bank plant. (ActiveStills)

Occupation profiteer SodaStream has attracted much attention lately over its hiring of Scarlett Johansson as a spokesmodel.

The Hollywood actress resigned from her human rights ambassadorship at Oxfam in order to continue to represent the company.

While the massive boycott campaign and controversy between Oxfam, Johansson and SodaStream forced international media to focus on the company’s plant in the Israeli settlement of Mishor Adumim in the occupied West Bank, the manufacturer of the fizzy drink machines says it is moving forward with plans to open a new factory inside present-day Israel.

Like the original factory, this plant will also profit from Israel’s discriminatory policies toward its non-Jewish citizens.

SodaStream has presented its decision to locate the new plant beside Rahat, a planned Palestinian Bedouin township in the Naqab (Negev) desert, as a positive step in an area with high unemployment. In reality, the industrialization of the area is part of a strategy dating back to at least 1963, when Israeli general Moshe Dayan outlined his plan for the Bedouins.

“We should transform the Bedouin into an urban proletariat,” Dayan said. “This will be a radical move, which means that the Bedouin will not live on his land with his herds, but would become an urban person who comes home in the afternoon and puts his slippers on.”

Rahat was established by the Israeli government in 1971 as a planned urban township for Bedouins as Israel expropriated more land in the Naqab.

According to a report by the ADVA Center for Information on Equality and Social Justice in Israel, Rahat and other planned townships have the lowest municipal budget allocations in Israel and suffer from a severe lack of infrastructure.

Even before the establishment of the townships, of course, Israel pursued a policy of massacre and ethnic cleansing in the Naqab dating back to the very beginning of the Zionist state.

In recent years, Israel’s push to divorce its Bedouin citizens from their traditional agricultural heritage has intensified, with an Israeli government initiative known as the Prawer Plan aiming to displace at least 40,000 Bedouin citizens of the Naqab.

Late last year, the Israeli government announced plans to put the Prawer Plan on hold, but Bedouin activists in the Naqab say the plan will still move forward in a modified form.

No consultation

Dr. Thabet Abu Rass is the director of the Naqab office of Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. He said the plan is now under the direction of Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir, who failed to follow through on a promise to meet with Bedouin citizens of the Naqab (“Bedouin ‘will be consulted’ over resettlement plan in Negev,” Haaretz, 8 January 2014).

“He so far didn’t talk with any of the Bedouin leaders that I know, the representatives of the Bedouins,” Abu Rass said. “So it seems to me that what we are witnessing is changing the people in charge without changing the policy of displacement.”

Abu Rass said Shamir promised to freeze the plan for one month while he met with citizens of the Naqab, but during the month he did not visit any of the “unrecognized” villages under threat of demolition.

Shamir recently told The Jerusalem Post that if dialogue fails, the Prawer plan will be implemented “by force” (“Changes will be made to Bedouin resettlement plan before new push,” 8 January 2014).

Shamir, of course, never attempted to have this dialogue, and the Israeli government is moving ahead with its threats of violence.

“Very difficult period”

“We are passing through a very difficult period. Home demolitions every day and chasing shepherds almost every day,” Abu Rass said.

Bedouin activist Amir Abo Kweder said that although Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, temporarily froze plans to pass the Prawer plan into law, little has changed in Israel’s long-standing policy of demolishing homes in the Naqab.

Implementing the Prawer Plan is “just a matter of the scale, it’s not whether it’s really happening or not,” Abo Kweder said. “We have smaller Prawers being implemented every week and every day.”

During a press tour of the Naqab in December 2013, Israeli government spokespeople touted the planned SodaStream plant in the Lehavim industrial zone as an economic solution for Bedouin citizens of Israel forcibly displaced from their land.

Following a showcase of Israeli government-sponsored job centers for Bedouin citizens of the Naqab, which are aimed at helping Bedouins “adjust” to the forced transition from their traditional agricultural lifestyle, members of the foreign press were taken to Lehavim.

Israeli government official Ofer Assaraf, from the Headquarters for Economic and Community Development of the Negev Bedouin, stated at a press briefing this reporter attended that the SodaStream plant will employ between 2,300 and 3,000 workers, although recent media reports have put the number much lower, at around 700.

Assaraf and other government officials openly linked the Lehavim industrial zone to the Prawer Plan, telling journalists that Bedouin who move to cities after being relocated from “unrecognized” villages will find job opportunities at Lehavim factories.

Daniel Birnbaum, SodaStream’s chief executive, has stated that the firm decided to open a factory in the Naqab on the understanding that it would receive a large grant from the Israeli government.

Birnbaum has complained that the government “has not kept its promise,” according to the Israeli business publication Globes (“SodaStream and govt at loggerheads over grants,” 2 February 2014).

Neither SodaStream nor the Israeli government’s Investment Promotion Center responded to repeated requests for comment from The Electronic Intifada.

Israel’s support for the Naqab SodaStream plant is a clear real-world application of Moshe Dayan’s dream, with Bedouin being forcibly removed from their traditional lifestyle and given factory jobs to replace the agriculture they’ve practiced for generations.

“We are not looking for blue-collar jobs. The Bedouins deserve to have equal opportunities, just like any Jewish resident of the Negev. So far, in the last five years, almost 95 percent of youth who are recruited for new jobs went to blue-collar jobs,” said Abu Rass. “We need economic sustainability for the Bedouins, to try to keep the money in the Negev.”

Skeptical

Abo Kweder said many people in the Naqab are skeptical of the job opportunities provided by SodaStream and other Lehavim factories.

“I have heard people [saying] that when the Prawer Plan is implemented, a lot of people will be displaced to Rahat — and then they will have cheap labor in Rahat [who] might be working in the factory,” he said. “I don’t think in the long run it’s a good option, because basically it will perpetuate the situation in Rahat of people with low salaries and low income and wouldn’t really provide any social mobility for the community.”

Entrenching apartheid

SodaStream’s factory in Mishor Adumim — the industrial zone of the Israeli settlement Maaleh Adumim — is unambiguously illegal under international law, as settlements violate the Fourth Geneva Convention’s prohibition on transferring civilians to territories under occupation.

Israeli and American media have tried to portray the Mishor Adumim factory as a paradise of cooperation and tolerance between SodaStream’s Israeli and Palestinian employees, but statements by Palestinian employees of the plant tell a very different story.

A Palestinian SodaStream employee told The Electronic Intifada that the company “treats us like slaves.” A former employee of the plant told Al Jazeera that the plant’s managers don’t follow safe labor practices, and the factory is “a lot less safe than they claim” (“SodaStream controversy continues to bubble,” 11 February 2014).

“There’s a lot of racism here,” another SodaStream worker told Reuters. “Most of the managers are Israeli, and West Bank employees feel they can’t ask for pay rises or more benefits because they can be fired and easily replaced” (“Israeli settlement factory sparks Super Bowl-sized controversy,” 29 January 2014)

The plant’s very existence in Maaleh Adumim helps to entrench the occupation and Israel’s apartheid system.

The settlement was established in the 1970s and has since expanded, taking over land belonging to five Palestinian villages.

In 1998, Israel evicted 1,050 Palestinian Bedouins from the area, relocating them to a site near a garbage dump (“Palestinian Bedouin community battles eviction,” Al-Monitor, 21 March 2013).

The new Naqab plant represents a continuation of SodaStream’s support of apartheid and colonization. Abo Kweder said that no matter how many people are employed at the Naqab factory, SodaStream can never wash its hands of its crimes in occupied Palestine.

“We have to admit the fact that the SodaStream factory built in Maaleh Adumim is built on lands confiscated from Palestinians who were expelled from the area,” he said. “The fact that SodaStream is trying to improve its reputation by building a factory in a place for a weakened community like here in the Naqab, it doesn’t really remedy the fact that they are committing a crime in the West Bank.”

Andrew Beale is an independent journalist from New Mexico. He reports on politics and social justice issues in the United States and Mexico as well as the Middle East.