The movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel has captured headlines around the world after actress Scarlett Johansson signed a promotion deal with Israeli company SodaStream.
Johansson signed the deal to become SodaStream's first “global brand ambassador” on January 1. A Super Bowl halftime commercial starring the actress airing on February 2.
However, the deal resulted in an instant furore due to the company's use of an Israeli occupied industrial settlement zone in Palestinian West Bank to make their home soda machines.
Oxfam, who Johansson has represented as a “global ambassador” for eight years, released a statement one week after the deal with SodaStream was signed, declaring that “businesses that operate in settlements further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support”.
“Oxfam is opposed to all trade from Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law,” it said.
The international aid group announced on January 30 that it had accepted Johansson's resignation as ambassador, as her deal with SodaStream was “incompatible” with her duties.
In 2009, actress and Oxfam ambassador Kristin Davis signed a deal with Ahava, a cosmetics company that also makes its products in West Bank settlements. Oxfam condemned the deal, but did not formally sever its relationship with Davis ― making Johansson's resignation a first.
SodaStream claims to be an ethical product, with a byline of “set the bubbles free”.
On its website, SodaStream boasts that it is an “'Active Green' solution that minimises the huge eco-footprint caused by the manufacture, transport and waste of plastic bottles.”
The company's ethics, however, have not stopped it running a plant in the Mishor Adumim industrial settlement zone. It was built in 1996 on stolen Palestinian land in the West Bank adjoining the large residential settlement of Ma'ale Adumim.
Of the factory's 1300 workers, 950 are Palestinian ― 500 from the West Bank and 450 with Israeli citizenship.
Johansson has endorsed the company's decision to operate there as a way of “building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine, supporting neighbours working alongside each other, receiving equal pay, equal benefits and equal rights”.
But this line of argument ignores that the West Bank workers are unable to speak out for fear of having their work permits revoked by the company. It also bypasses the questions of land ownership and self-determination inherent in any discussion of the settlements.
Alun McDonald, an Oxfam spokesperson on Israel and the occupied West Bank, told IBTimes.com that “the problem at the moment is it’s in an illegal settlement on occupied land”.
“If it’s an Israeli factory in a future Palestinian state, paying tax in Palestine and genuinely benefiting the economy, then it could be a good thing,” McDonald said. “Our opposition is not that it’s an Israeli company ― our position is the same for any company from any country working in settlements.”
A 2011 Who Profits report into the operations identified that the factory's municipal taxes go to the Ma'ale Adumim settlement Municipality, funding the growth of the settlement.
Who Profits quoted a 2000 interview with SodaStream founder Peter Wiseburgh stating that the decision to set up the plant was “not a political act”, but made because of the settlement's cheap rent and lax bureaucratic regulations.
The report also said the settlement block is strategically located on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem, creating a barrier between the Palestinian cities of Bethlehem and Ramallah, south and north of Jerusalem. The settlement and surrounding apartheid wall actively prevent economic activity or freedom of movement between the north and south of the West Bank.
The settlements are the front line of Israel's continued colonisation of Palestinian lands. More than 1000 Palestinian Bedouins were forcibly relocated so that Johansson's “bridge to peace” in the settlement block could be built.
In many ways, SodaStream's bid to downplay or nullify the controversy reflects the growing strength of the BDS movement.
Campaigners have been delighted to see the company suffer, with share values plummeting on the back of worse than forecasted earnings, and Johansson's Super Bowl ad being poorly received.
But the news has been overshadowed by Israel issuing final approval of 558 new settlements in East Jerusalem on February 5.