Early each morning, dozens of workers from Jaba’ walk up a narrow set of stairs with trash strewn on either side to reach a bus stop on Highway 60, which bisects the West Bank on its way from Nazareth to Beersheva. As they climb the stairs, the workers pass a tunnel that once allowed villagers convenient access to the highway, but which has been blocked by limestone boulders, dirt and rubble since the intifada of the early 2000s. At this bend in the road, nine miles northwest of Jerusalem, much of the horizon is defined by the 20-foot high concrete separation wall. Across the highway to the east is a traffic circle with signs marking the entrance to the Israeli settlement of Geva Benjamin, advertisements for settlement real estate elsewhere and a red military sign warning Israelis of the dangers of entering Area A, the 18 percent of the West Bank controlled by Palestinians under the terms of the 1993 Oslo accords. Cars and buses begin to congest the highway, as both settlers and Palestinians begin their day. Here the workers wait for the bus that will ferry them the ten miles to their jobs at the SodaStream seltzer machine factory.

These workers are at the heart of a controversy brought to global attention in January 2013 by Scarlett Johansson. Following the announcement of the actress’s contract as spokesperson for SodaStream, two very different narratives emerged about the Israeli company’s factory in Mishor Adumim, an industrial zone attached to the settlement of Maale Adumim in the occupied West Bank. Critics point out that the factory is located in a settlement illegal under international law, and claim that Palestinian workers are exploited as a captive labor market. SodaStream’s proponents, led by the company’s telegenic CEO Daniel Birnbaum, paint a very different picture. According to Birnbaum, who is echoed by Johansson: “This factory is a dream for activists and politicians on both sides of this dilemma, because it’s a model for peace and is proving every day that there can and will be peace between our peoples.” [1] Employing Jews and Palestinians side by side, SodaStream offers good jobs in a pluralistic environment where employees are respected equally.

The debate is contentious, in part because the two sides talk past one another. But while SodaStream makes for sparkling dinner conversation, neither critics nor supporters give a good account of the communities from which the company draws its labor, or the larger picture of Israeli economic planning, which privileges the interests of Israeli Jews while deploying a vocabulary of coexistence. The story of Jaba’ reflects the history of the post-1967 occupation, one in which territorial confinement and employment restrictions render Palestinians economically dependent on Israel. But this reality does not end at the Green Line — the 1949 armistice line. SodaStream’s planned factory in the Negev also benefits from state policies that have impoverished Palestinians and paved the way for development projects dependent on low-wage labor.

A Model Factory

Jaba’ was never an isolated village. Located just a few miles from Ramallah to the north and Jerusalem to the south, in 1967 it was a small community with an agricultural economy. Since that time, Jaba’ has been drastically reshaped by the Israeli state’s expropriation of much of the village agricultural lands for settlements, a military base and a nature reserve. Today, the only entrance to Jaba’ follows a circuitous route leading to a bridge over highway 60. Dispossessed and hemmed in by settlements, residents of Jaba’ have watched their economic resources all but disappear.

Many Jaba’ residents have emigrated to the United States or elsewhere. More than half of the remaining 3,300 residents work across the Green Line or in settlements and settler industrial zones such as Mishor Adumim. There is even a small settler industrial zone, Sha’ar Benjamin, within the old village limits. Jaba’ is home to over 100 employees of SodaStream, making it one of the largest suppliers of labor to the Mishor Adumim factory.

Supporters of SodaStream are quick to argue that the company provides a good salary for its workers, and they cite positive worker accounts of the factory environment and the standard of living that the job provides. The company’s promotional video, available on their website, shows footage of Jewish and Palestinian workers on the assembly line, and features smiling accounts such as the following from a Palestinian worker: “I love SodaStream. SodaStream gives jobs to many Arabs. Here at SodaStream, we’re like brothers, like one family.”

In our own conversations with employees and former employees of SodaStream, we found the majority of workers satisfied with their working conditions and pay, although some — notably, former short-term employees — were angered by their experience. But workers were not always so satisfied. Prior to 2009, SodaStream, via a third-party contractor, paid Palestinian employees less than the Israeli minimum wage, in violation of the 2007 Supreme Court decision applying Israeli labor law to the settlements. In 2009, this contractor was held responsible for its failure to abide by labor law and subsequently went bankrupt. After a second failed attempt at outsourcing the Mishor Adumim factory and successful organizing on the part of workers, SodaStream began to employ workers directly at that factory and to follow Israeli law. Labor rights groups still receive complaints about 12-hour work days, no overtime pay and intimidation by management, but the fact remains that SodaStream provides the best labor conditions of any factory in the settlement industrial zones.

SodaStream’s factory is a showcase: It is made available to international journalists by the company and the Israeli state because it represents an ideal settlement operation. [2] But focusing on the labor conditions at SodaStream, or any single settlement business, leaves questions about the larger effects of occupation unasked. It is true that Israel’s minimum wage (about $1,240 per month) is well over double the wage otherwise available to Palestinians in the West Bank, if they are able to find employment at all. But why is it that Israeli minimum wage — barely livable in Jewish Israeli cities and settlements — will provide so well for Palestinian workers in the West Bank?

Divide and “Coexist”

The Palestinian economy in the West Bank cannot be considered separately from the policies of the Israeli state, which has directed the economy of this region since 1967. Israel controls the region’s exports, imports and natural resources, as well as the movement of goods and people within the West Bank and across its shrinking borders.

During the first decade of occupation, Israel tried to integrate the economies of the West Bank and Gaza with its own through policies that aimed to neutralize resistance by promoting Palestinian prosperity. These policies were initially successful, according to standard economic indicators: Wages were up, unemployment was all but obliterated and there was a significant increase in private consumption across the Occupied Territories. [3] But these gains were accomplished by undermining the overall capacity and independence of the Palestinian economy. [4] The combination of Israel’s expropriation of territory and its modernization of Palestinian agriculture removed many farmers from the land, thus producing a large and active labor force dependent on Israeli employment.

The administrative and physical partitioning of the West Bank following the 1993 Oslo agreement has entrenched Israeli control over the Palestinian economy. (In Gaza, Israel directs the economy through a near-complete blockade of the territory effected after Hamas’ electoral victory in 2006.) Authority to grant permits for work, imports and exports is the exclusive domain of the Israeli state, which also maintains control over the internal roads and access across the Green Line. Unemployment has fluctuated widely, spiking in the mid- to late-1990s and during the second intifada when the West Bank was completely closed off. Since that time, unemployment rates have gradually decreased as military closures have eased and some workers have returned to Israel or found work in the settlements. Though the Palestinian Authority (PA) has created thousands of public-sector jobs since 1993, these have benefited mostly well-educated Palestinians, and the stability of PA jobs depends on Israel’s disbursement of local tax revenue and international donor funds. Palestinian employment is regulated de facto by the exigencies of Israeli political, economic and security priorities.

In this environment, coexistence is imagined almost exclusively as Palestinian employment in low-wage manufacturing, construction and agricultural operations run by Israeli companies. When set against ongoing settler violence, such employment is even seen as an ideal form of interaction. In the last three years, Jaba’ has endured arson at a mosque and in what little remains of their orchards, as well as settler graffiti at the high school. But Jaba’ residents still return to the factory every day.

Birnbaum presents the Mishor Adumim factory as a model of altruistic capitalism that will usher in a peaceful resolution to the very conflict in which it participates. Yet SodaStream’s model of coexistence is indispensable to the system of rule which has promoted Israeli business interests by destroying the possibility of an independent Palestinian economy. Talk about coexistence cannot be reduced to simple misrepresentation or cynical public relations ploy. But the concept’s long history in Israel-Palestine has always been predicated upon — indeed, is made possible by — the political and economic inequality between its supposed partners.

A New Era?

Though he defends SodaStream’s operation in the West Bank, Birnbaum has admitted publicly that the Mishor Adumim factory — which predates his time at the company — is a “pain in the ass.” SodaStream is in the process of building another facility within the Green Line in Idan HaNegev (“The Negev Era”), a new industrial zone north of Beersheva. As a settlement and target of boycott, Mishor Adumim is a liability for a company with a global market such as SodaStream. The Negev offers potential respite from this pressure while retaining many of the benefits of doing business in the settlements. Both West Bank settlements and the Negev are classified by the Israel Lands Administration as the highest-priority areas for development. Companies willing to invest in these zones receive hefty subsidies, grants and tax breaks. Crucially, the tax revenue from these industrial zones, which often rely heavily on non-Jewish labor, feeds into the adjacent Jewish municipalities, whether a settlement or a Jewish town in Green Line Israel.

Idan HaNegev is part of a decades-long effort by the Israeli government, most recently and aggressively undertaken in the Prawer Plan, to concentrate and urbanize Bedouin residents of the Negev. This project dates to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, when 81,000 of the region’s 92,000 Bedouins were displaced outside the new state, and the remaining 11,000 confined to a small area known as the siyagh. Fenced in and subject to military law until 1969, the remaining villages continue to be unrecognized by the state. Unrecognized villages are denied basic infrastructure such as connections to water and the electrical grid, and residents are served demolition orders for their homes and water tanks. Bedouins are forced to choose between remaining on their historic lands in constant fear of eviction, with limited access to basic amenities, or to move to one of seven state-planned townships. Land confiscated by the state after demolition is frequently repurposed for either Jewish communities and farms or the military, one of the biggest players in the economic development of the Negev.

In these conditions, a stunning 67.2 percent of Bedouin families in Israel live in poverty, compared to 20.5 percent of all Israeli families. The state’s ten-point scale of socioeconomic development ranks all Bedouin communities at the very bottom. Official numbers put unemployment among urban Bedouins in the Negev at around 17 percent, or more than double the rate in the region’s poorest Jewish towns. While no official data exists about unemployment in the unrecognized villages, it is commonly accepted that joblessness is significantly higher there.

Like settler industrial zones, Idan HaNegev has been celebrated as a project in coexistence, integrating Bedouins into Israeli society through economic development. The industrial zone boasts cooperation from the leaders of Rahat, the largest Bedouin township, and the surrounding Jewish communities, which have a majority stake in the development. Though SodaStream initially promised to provide over 1,000 new jobs, it has downsized its planned operation to 500 employees, and most will be earning minimum wage. [5]

For Palestinian workers in Israeli industrial zones — whether or not they hold Israeli citizenship — minimum wage often amounts to the maximum of care offered by the state, or in the West Bank, by the occupying authority responsible for the population under international law. While residents of Jaba’ and the Negev have different relationships with the Israeli state, and have lived under separate legal regimes, they bear similar histories of confinement, deliberate de-development and proletarianization.

The problem with SodaStream does not stop at the Green Line. Nor is SodaStream alone in profiting from areas targeted by the Israeli state for demographic and economic transformation. In the tiered system of governing people and space throughout Israel-Palestine, coexistence is little more than a euphemism for worker acquiescence to a system that makes minimum-wage jobs seem like luxuries.


[1] Reuters, January 29, 2014.
[2] Benjamin Katz-Nussbaum, “A Model Factory For a Colonialism in Trouble: The SodaStream Saga Revisited,” Mondoweiss, March 7, 2014.
[3] Neve Gordon, Israel’s Occupation (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008), p. 66.
[4] Leila Farsakh, Palestinian Labor Migration to Israel: Labor, Land and Occupation (Abingdon: Routledge, 2005)
[5] Haaretz, February 3, 2014.

How to cite this article:

Michael Fin, Callie Maidhof "Seltzer Colonialism," Middle East Report Online, March 17, 2015.

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This