Down the Road From SodaStream, a Complicated Coexistence

A visit to the West Bank's Mishor Adumim industrial zone, which was thrust into the limelight this week due to its best-known factory, SodaStream, and actress Scarlett Johansson.

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MISHOR ADUMIM, West Bank – The Shweiki glass factory, with its sleek outer façade and interior, stands out among the mostly shabby-looking low-tech plants, carpentries, workshops and garages that populate this industrial zone just outside the Jewish settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim.

But there’s something even more fundamental that sets it apart: Shweiki is an Arab-owned enterprise.

Its ultra-modern glass factory is just a few hundred meters down the road from SodaStream, the company that recently thrust this small industrial park into the international limelight when it hired American celebrity Scarlett Johansson to serve as the global ambassador for its soda machines – at a time when the movement to boycott goods made in the occupied territories is gathering momentum abroad.

A boycotted Palestinian firm

But the managers at Shweiki, established in 1936 by an East Jerusalem family, insists that they get an even worse rap than their Jewish counterparts. On the one hand, the Israeli Ministry of Defense refuses to give its seal of approval to the company’s shatterproof glass, while on the other, the Palestinian Authority boycotts its products.

“The Palestinians in Ramallah say we’re no better than the settlers,” explains Amran Shaloud, production manager at the plant, which moved to Mishor Adumim seven years ago.

Things tend to get complicated here, as stories like his would suggest. Sprawled over nearly 400 acres in the middle of the Judean Desert, a 15-minute drive from Jerusalem, Mishor Adumim is home today to close to 300 factories and small enterprises, including a bowling alley, two huge supermarkets, a small art museum, the huge Extal aluminum company and several kosher wineries. These businesses, including a very few owned by Arabs, are entitled to special tax breaks, as Mishor Adumim is an area designated for preferential treatment under Israeli law.

SodaStream is among the biggest operations, both physically and in terms of turnover, in this industrial zone. Surrounded by an ugly concrete wall topped with barbed wire, its manufacturing plant is situated just at the edge of Mishor Adumim, in clear view of local Palestinian children from nearby villages riding around on donkeys. SodaStream headquarters rejected a request from Haaretz earlier this week to pay a visit to its Mishor Adumim factory, saying: “We are not hosting such tours at this time.”

But other factories in the industrial zone were quick to open their doors and make their case for operating in this particular location. Most of these businesses, like SodaStream, rely heavily on Palestinian labor – in some cases, almost exclusively.

In defending her decision to represent an Israeli company based in occupied territory, Johansson this week cited the livelihood and welfare of these Palestinian workers. This claim echoed in numerous conversations with Jewish managers here this week.

“We can move our factories elsewhere, so it’s not a big problem for us, but they’ll lose their jobs,” notes Ami Cohen, the chief financial officer at Emesh, an upscale wood-furnishings manufacturer.

“Where else do they get paid like this, and where else do they have conditions like this? I give them time to pray every day and even provide them with water to wash their feet. Trust me, if you weren’t a journalist, my workers here would tell you that they’d rather that there not be any Palestinian state at all.”

But most of the local Jewish factory owners and operators acknowledge that it was not deep concern for the plight of local Palestinians that prompted them to set up shop in Mishor Adumim. Aside from the special tax benefits and the lower municipal taxes, there were also very basic geographic considerations.

“Because of the location, Palestinians can get to work here easily,” explains Akiva (who requested that his surname not be published), a manager at a local winery. “If they were working in Atarot [another industrial zone outside Jerusalem], they’d have to get up at 4 in the morning to make sure they could be at work by 7, because they’d have to go through checkpoints then. Here they don’t have to do that. Depending upon where they come from, it can take them less than a half hour to get to work, and that’s a big plus for people here.”

'No problems with location'

Seated at Miro’s, a popular local eatery known for its home-style cooking, are Yoram and Gilad, two brothers who run a large electronic appliances outlet store here. There was nothing ideological about their decision to set up a business over the Green Line, they insist. “We’re from Jerusalem, but there’s no available storage space in Jerusalem for an operation like this, and that’s why we had to come here,” says Gilad.

The managers of Emesh describe their factory as a model of Jewish-Arab coexistence. “About two-thirds of our workers are Palestinians,” says Eli Gelman, the production manager, who lives in the nearby settlement of Kfar Adumim. “They come from all over the place. We’ve got workers here from Ramallah, from Bethlehem and even from Hebron. Trust me, if they had better options in Hebron, they wouldn’t trek all the way here.”

A team of Palestinian workers from the factory, he volunteers, is now in England, doing some carpentry work for clients there.

So nobody’s threatening to boycott you overseas?

“Not at all. Most of our clients abroad are wealthy Jews, and they have no problems whatsoever with our location.”

Gelman circulates among the workers on the production floor, giving instructions in Hebrew and in English for those who don’t speak Hebrew. He motions to Ashraf, a curly-haired man in his forties, to join him and tells him to feel free to answer a reporter’s questions.

Does Ashraf have any reservations about working in a Jewish-owned factory in occupied territory? “I could care less,” he responds. “The one thing I care about is being able to put some food on the table for my kids.”

But couldn’t he find work closer to home in Ramallah? “Yes, but the bosses there aren’t as good as the bosses here,” he responds, as Gelman smiles on encouragingly.

Osama, a 24-year-old from Bethlehem, says it was the salary that brought him to Mishor Adumim. “I couldn’t find a job that pays as well near where I live,” he says.

Not far down the road, at the huge Rami Levy supermarket, a group of Arab workers congregates outside the back of the building, where they hold their midday prayers. About half a dozen others sit down around a picnic table near the parking lot and share a communal lunch of cooked lentils, served in a huge aluminum pot. Issa, their self-appointed spokesman, runs the fresh produce department of the supermarket.

“I’m happy to talk about anything but politics,” says the 36-year-old, who hails from the nearby village of Azzariyeh and describes his marital status as “four kids, but only one wife.”

Relations between the Jewish and Arab workers at Rami Levy are “excellent,” he says. “We’re all friends with each other on Facebook and sometimes we even eat together.”

Does he have a problem working for a Jewish-owned establishment in the occupied territories? “It’s my livelihood,” he responds and quickly changes the subject.

A few blocks down, at Miro’s, the regular lunch crowd has settled in – with no exceptions, all Jewish.

“I tried to get Arabs to come here and even offered them a special deal, but they prefer to buy their lunch at the local supermarkets,” explains the proprietor, Miro Mizrahi, as he takes orders from his longtime assistant, Mohammed.

The apparently self-imposed segregation at lunchtime is also reflected, though in a more subtle form, in factory premises around the industrial zone. Although Jews and Arabs do spend many hours each day together here in common spaces, it is by-and-large the Arabs who are down on the production floor working the machinery and the Jews upstairs in the posh offices, at large desks behind computer screens.

The rare exception would be factories like Schweiki, where not a Jew is in sight. “It’s hard for us to hire Jews here because we’re closed on Fridays, but open on Saturday, and that wouldn’t be comfortable for them,” explains Shaloud, whose factory is right next door to Jewish-run Emesh.

Shaloud is taking a late-afternoon break, talking to a friend, Samih Owweida, who runs an aluminum factory down the road.

“As Arabs, we get it from both ends,” gripes Owweida. “I want to sell my stuff in the West Bank, and nobody will buy from me there.”

And then, with a big sigh, he throws up his hands in despair and utters a small prayer: “Let there just be peace already, so we can finish with this whole mess.”

Palestinian workers on a prayer break in Mishor Adumim, an industrial park in the West Bank. Credit: Michal Fattal
Credit: Michal Fattal
Mishor Adumim industrial zone in the West Bank, outside the settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim. Credit: Michal Fattal
For Palestinians, working at Mishor Adumim is very convenient. Credit: Michal Fattal