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Israeli bubble maker that employed Scarlett Johansson is closing a factory

Employees work at the new SodaStream factory built deep in Israel's Negev Desert that will replace the West Bank facility when it shuts down next month. (Photo/Dan Balilty)

A battle over Israel's future is being fought at a factory that once employed Scarlett Johansson to tout its bubbly water.

Facing calls for an international boycott, along with falling revenues and stock prices, the carbonation company called SodaStream is shutting down its operation in the occupied Palestinian territory next month and moving to a larger new facility in Israel's Negev desert.

Leaders of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement claim the company’s withdrawal from the West Bank just east of Jerusalem is a big win for the Palestinian cause. Although hundreds of Palestinians will soon be out of jobs, BDS leaders say it is worth it.

“This is a clear-cut BDS victory against an odiously complicit Israeli company,” said Omar Bar­ghouti, co-founder of the BDS movement. Israel should not be allowed to exploit its occupation by operating factories in Palestinian lands, he said.

Daniel Birnbaum, the chief executive of SodaStream, said the closure of the West Bank factory had “zero” to do with the boycott campaign against his company and its “brand ambassador,” the actor Johansson, who last year performed in a Super Bowl ad for the machines.

Scarlett Johansson starred in SodaStream's 2014 Super Bowl ad. (Video: Courtesy of SodaStream)

Instead, Birnbaum accused BDS critics of robbing ordinary Palestinians of well-paying jobs.

“It’s propaganda. It’s politics. It’s hate. It’s anti-Semitism,” he said.

Birnbaum called the factory “an island of peace in the Middle East,” where Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druze make home-carbonation machines that retail for $79. BDS activists called it apartheid.

The skirmish over who is right and who is hurt by the boycott movement comes as Israeli leaders express growing fear that a campaign of "delegitimization" against the Jewish state is more dangerous than Islamist militants from Hamas and Hezbollah.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government vowed to spend $25 million to combat BDS efforts. At a conference in June hosted by the Las Vegas casino magnate, GOP megadonor and Netanyahu supporter Sheldon Adelson, as much as $50 million more was pledged for anti-BDS campaigns by wealthy American Jews.

Israeli officials insist that BDS has not hurt the economy — yet — although they don’t act like it.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported last month that Israeli military intelligence units have been tasked with tracking BDS groups abroad, as they would terror organizations.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin called academic boycotts against Israel a "strategic threat of the first order" at a conference he hosted at his official residence in May, when Israeli university presidents vented their anxieties about blocked collaborations.

Boycott activists say they seek to win Palestinian rights by applying the same kind of pressure used in the 1980s against apartheid South Africa. Israel's military has occupied the West Bank for 48 years on land the Palestinians want for a future state. Israel says the lands are disputed.

Israel says the BDS movement doesn't just want Israel to withdraw; it wants to destroy it. The Israeli government says the BDS call for a "right of return" for millions of Palestinian refugees and descendants who were forced from or fled Israel in 1948 would overwhelm the Jewish state.

"We are in the midst of a great struggle being waged against the state of Israel, an international campaign to blacken its name," Netanyahu warned earlier this summer.

BDS activists say they are on a roll. The boycott movement convinced hip-hop artist Lauryn Hill not to perform in Israel — although Mariah Carey played in Tel Aviv and toured the SodaStream plant to "support Palestinian and Jewish coexistence."

Activists claimed that the French company Transdev, half-owned by the infrastructure giant Veolia, pulled out of Jerusalem’s light-rail system because of the BDS movement.

The tramway — frequently pelted by Palestinian rock-throwers — connects Israel's West Jerusalem with occupied East Jerusalem. The French said the decision was all business and not about BDS.

At the new SodaStream factory in Israel, Palestinian workers said they like their jobs, although they weren’t happy about the new location and their four-hour round-trip commute on buses and through military checkpoints.

Ahmed Abdel Wahid, 31, is one of only 36 Palestinians who worked at the SodaStream plant in the West Bank to find a job at the new facility in Israel.

“I like it here. It’s a good work. It’s good money,” Wahid said. “We are treated as equals here.”

Wahid said he would rather work closer to home in the West Bank. “But there are no jobs and even if there are jobs, the pay is rotten,” he said. He makes about $1,400 a month, he said.

At its peak, 600 Palestinians worked for SodaStream in the West Bank, but the Israeli government gave the company only 130 permits for Palestinians to work at the facility inside Israel. Most of those jobs have not been filled because Israel will not allow young, male, unmarried Palestinians to work in Israel, and many Palestinian women don’t feel comfortable with such a long commute.

BDS co-founder Barghouti said the Palestinian workers backed the boycotts. “They all know that resisting Israel’s regime of occupation, colonialism and apartheid comes at a price, sometimes steep, but freedom, justice and equality are well worth it to them,” he said.

Bassem Eid, a Palestinian political analyst who opposes the boycott in the West Bank, said, "We pay the boycott lip service, but there are no jobs in the West Bank, so BDS asks of the Palestinians, please, suffer just a little bit more. For what? For who? For how many more years?"

The BDS movement burst into the mainstream last year when activists targeted SodaStream and promoter Johansson. At the time, Johansson served a similar, although unpaid, role for Oxfam. The charity and Johansson parted ways after she refused to sever her ties with SodaStream.

Oxfam said businesses that operate in Jewish settlements in the West Bank “further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support.” Jewish settlements in the West Bank are considered illegal by the international community, although Israel disputes that.

During a tour of the new plant, SodaStream's Birnbaum said world leaders should come to his factory.

"We respect each other. It's family for me," said Hanadi Ghoruf, 38, one of the few Palestinian women to make the transition from the West Bank to Israel. She pointed at fellow workers on the assembly line, who smiled and waved.

Barghouti said the argument that boycotts will hurt poor Palestinian workers "is not only disingenuous and intended to divert attention from the illegality of all Israeli colonies . . . but plagiarizes from South African apartheid companies that used this exact argument."

Ohad Cohen, head of the foreign trade administration at the Israeli Ministry of Economy, said now that SodaStream has left the West Bank, there aren’t that many big Israeli brands left for BDS to go after. “We are talking about maybe only 100 companies; their exports are only between 1 and 2 percent of Israel's total exports,” he said.

Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to his report.

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