Palestinian-Israeli Normalization in the Workplace: A Manager’s View

I have worked in a variety of positions at SodaStream, first as a worker and then a manager at SodaStream’s Mishor Adumim facility, where I was employed for six years. Currently, I am a manager and team leader, in charge of 20 employees at SodaStream’s new Idan Hanegev factory. My employees have diverse backgrounds and include Palestinian Arabs, Israeli Jews, Russian immigrants, Ethiopian immigrants, and Bedouin Arabs from the Negev Desert. We work in engraving, rinsing, spray, inventory, and valves at SodaStream.

My position carries a lot of responsibility, since I am in charge of many components of SodaStream’s home-carbonation machines.

Nabil Basherat overseeing two SodaStream workers

Nabil Basherat overseeing two SodaStream workers in his department, October 2017. (David Abitbol)

SodaStream has long been targetted by the BDS movement. Ironically, the global BDS campaign has caused damage to the Palestinian public. The BDS movement has threatened my job security and livelihood. It damaged the livelihoods of hundreds of SodaStream factory workers, who were laid off as SodaStream left its Mishor Adumim facility in the West Bank. BDS compounded the difficulties that Daniel Birnbaum, the company’s CEO, faced while trying to obtain permits for SodaStream’s Palestinian workers for the new Negev facility. If not for the BDS movement, we could have expanded the Mishor Adumim facility, or moved swiftly to resume our former jobs at the new SodaStream factory in the Negev, instead of losing our work permits for 18 months before returning to SodaStream.

Teamwork and Diversity at SodaStream

I am 40 years old and a resident of the Palestinian village of Jaba’, which is located southeast of Ramallah. I started working at SodaStream’s factory in the Israeli-controlled Mishor Adumim industrial zone in 2009. My first job was as a factory worker. My managers admired my work ethic and I was promoted several times. By the time the Mishor Adumim facility closed in 2016, I was manager of SodaStream’s assembly and valve department. In my department in Mishor Adumim, Palestinians, Jews, and Arabs from east Jerusalem all worked together. Even though the BDS movement portrayed SodaStream’s Palestinian workers as “slaves” who were abused by management, this is not the case. SodaStream’s Palestinian workers are very satisfied.

We work under favorable conditions and for good salaries.

A team of three SodaStream workers

A team of three SodaStream workers, October 2017. (David Abitbol)

SodaStream has provided an excellent work environment. People have been excited to work there. I supervise employees with higher educations, many with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Palestinian universities. One coworker has a master’s degree in electronic engineering, another a master’s degree in history. SodaStream’s Mishor Adumim facility employed about 50 Palestinians with higher educations, and the new Negev facility employs many more.

Regardless of our diverse backgrounds, staff members coexist at SodaStream like family. We talk together, eat together, and speak candidly about our lives and even the political climate.

We have also faced difficult times together. Unlike others who could choose not to face “the other side” during times of political strife, at SodaStream, Israelis and Palestinians worked together every day. We worked together through the first Gaza war, the second Gaza war, and terror attacks during the terror wave that began in the fall of 2015. We did not ignore the political realities; instead we talked about them quietly.

Four months after I began working at SodaStream, my coworkers threw me a surprise party.

It was their idea, not a suggestion from management. Israeli and Palestinian coworkers joined together in planning the surprise, and people talked about it quietly. Israeli workers also wept when their Palestinian coworkers had to leave the factory after their permits were revoked in 2016.

SodaStream worker from Hebron

SodaStream worker from Hebron, October 2017. (David Abitbol)

I value the harmonious group dynamic and positive atmosphere at SodaStream. Our managers treat us with respect, and this in turn makes us feel that the factory is our second home. We also receive an Israeli salary, which is more than three times the salary I would be making in Ramallah. We have access to social benefits including paid vacation, annual leave, sick leave, pension plans, a fund for continuing education, and medical insurance. SodaStream provides us private insurance with the Phoenix agency, because the Palestinian Authority does not provide national insurance as the Israeli government does.

We worked together through the first Gaza war, the second Gaza war, and terror attacks during the terror wave that began in the fall of 2015. We did not ignore the political realities; instead we talked about them quietly.

This insurance covers not only the workers but our families as well. I have not seen or heard of this benefit in any other factory in the West Bank. Some workers have large families, sometimes as many as 15 people, yet SodaStream still gave health insurance to everyone. Some workers had the option to receive extended coverage, such as supplementary dental insurance, for only 12 extra shekels a month.

SodaStream workers working at the assembly line

SodaStream workers working at the assembly line, October 2017. (David Abitbol)

Misconceptions about How SodaStream Treats Its Palestinian Employees

I have read European claims that SodaStream exploits its workers and that we are being treated like “slaves.” These Europeans falsely argue that companies like SodaStream are deepening the occupation, simply because tens of thousands of Palestinians work for Israelis. I do not know how they came to this conclusion; many of us have good wages and maintain good relations with Israeli employers and coworkers. Jews and Arabs have worked side by side since long before 1948, even long before the Ottoman period.

SodaStream can serve as an example of economic collaboration and shared industry between Arabs and Jews.

I understand that the PLO, the PA, and the Fatah Party have long opposed Palestinians and Israelis working together. Before the PLO adopted a diplomatic and political strategy against Israel, they were undertaking military operations such as hijacking planes and blowing up buses.

Yet Europeans support the PLO’s position against the normalization of Israeli-Palestinian relations. I do not understand their logic, their view that factories are “obstacles to peace” and therefore only shutting them down or burning them to the ground will bring peace.

The opposite is true: SodaStream can serve as an example of economic collaboration and shared industry between Arabs and Jews.

Three SodaStream workers arranging parts

Three SodaStream workers arranging parts, October 2017. (David Abitbol)

When you have a regular workplace, job security, and benefits for your entire family, you can provide for them and you gain confidence. This confidence will flow into your domestic life and help produce a happy, proud, and financially secure family. It also allows children to dream for the future, and parents to save for their higher education or job training.

Hence, my leaving SodaStream in 2016 for more than one year felt like losing something precious. It not only took away my personal self-confidence, but also my family cohesion and security.

BDS, Permits, and the Layoffs of SodaStream’s Palestinian Employees

There are security quotas for Palestinian workers entering Israel from the West Bank.

Permits are granted based on one’s profession, with quotas issued for workers in agriculture, nursing, construction, and manufacturing. The maximum limit for manufacturing had already been reached when SodaStream moved to the Negev early in 2016, and because SodaStream employs so many Palestinians, the Israeli Civil Administration initially refused to extend its security allocation even for this exceptional circumstance. Therefore, unfortunately, in 2016 my coworkers and I were not granted approval by the Israeli government to work at the new facility in the Negev. One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do was to fire my own employees, members of my team, who were like my workplace family. However, after the Israeli Civil Administration initially denied them permits to work at SodaStream’s Idan Hanegev facility in 2016, I had no choice; it would have been illegal for all of us to continue working at SodaStream without these permits.

I had heard about factory closings, but I did not understand the true implications, the feelings of guilt and sadness you experience when you lay off a close friend, until I had to do it myself. The worst part was knowing that if CEO Daniel Birnbaum and the rest of the company’s management had had their way, these firings would not have occurred. We were not firing employees because they were inferior workers, or because SodaStream had abandoned them; it was BDS. European and U.S. demonstrations against the Mishor Adumim facility claimed a price.

We were not firing employees because they were inferior workers, or because SodaStream had abandoned them; it was BDS. European and U.S. demonstrations against the Mishor Adumim facility claimed a price.

When the layoffs from SodaStream were announced, we did everything in our power to call international attention to this injustice, so that the BDS movement would not succeed and subvert the positive narrative of SodaStream’s Palestinian workers. I know many journalists, and I contacted all of them. I told them to come and report on how the BDS movement was hurting SodaStream’s Palestinian employees. These journalists included three or four Europeans. One of them, from Channel 24 in France, spoke to me in English, and I responded in Arabic. Suddenly he called me an “agent,” meaning a foreign agent and often interpreted to mean “Israeli informant.” This word is particularly insulting to a Palestinian and has many negative connotations in Arabic, where it directly translates to “traitor.” In essence, he was calling me a traitor to my own people for working at SodaStream. I was shocked that a French reporter, presumably representing a democratic state, would say such a thing.

The first terminations took place when 200 workers were laid off from SodaStream, after the Israeli Civil Administration denied requests for all Palestinian SodaStream employees to move to the Negev factory. I contacted all of the European journalists I knew. I sent them text messages saying, “Review the situation here. Speak to the workers, and explore why they were fired and why the factory is being shut down.” One journalist did visit, but he took little interest in this story and never reported on our perspective as promised.

Many of the SodaStream workers are interested only in providing income for their families and prefer not to be involved in politics. Against whom would they demonstrate? They felt that their voices were not heard, and that it would be futile to challenge the BDS movement and explain that although they work for Israelis, the income they receive enables them to provide bread for their families. They also could not express the fact that the Palestinian discourse demonizing Israel and Israelis is false. They restrained themselves from expressing their anger to the PA, fearing reactions by the Palestinian leadership.

SodaStream workers assembling parts

SodaStream workers assembling parts, October 2017. (David Abitbol)

Palestinian Authority Corruption and Intimidation

Although it is not illegal according to Palestinian law to work for an Israeli company operating in an Israeli-owned industrial zone in the West Bank, Palestinian police and politicians have made our lives very difficult. Many SodaStream employees have been questioned by PA police multiple times, although they have broken no laws. We cannot protest or express our anger to the PA; there could be ramifications that would hurt our families and ourselves.

Unsurprisingly, nobody from the PA came to help us or even listen to our stories following our termination and unemployment in 2016. Unlike SodaStream’s Palestinian employees, PA bureaucrats and BDS leaders were interviewed constantly by the foreign media. Some PA officials even told the international media that they would replace the jobs lost at SodaStream.

SodaStream employees have been questioned by PA police multiple times, although they have broken no laws. We cannot protest or express our anger to the PA; there could be ramifications that would hurt our families and ourselves.

However, nobody reached out to me or any of my Palestinian coworkers for the 18 months we were not working for SodaStream; nobody in the Palestinian leadership made an effort to replace our jobs or provide any safety net now that we were no longer receiving private insurance from SodaStream. All the Palestinian workers and their families were residents of the PA, and they should have been representing us and our interests. But this did not interest them, simply because the PA opposes Arabs and Jews working together.

However, the PA was eager to collect the taxes of Palestinian SodaStream employees. Palestinian workers in an Israeli industrial zone must pay taxes to the PA, as per an arrangement between Israel and the PA. I had to pay taxes far higher than Israeli taxes. At least Israeli taxes are used for services like healthcare, education, and infrastructure, unlike PA taxes, which line the pockets of bureaucrats.

Nabil Basherat at work in his department

Nabil Basherat at work in his department, October 2017. (David Abitbol)

As a Palestinian working in an Israeli industrial zone, I paid these taxes, almost 1,000 NIS a month, in light of the arrangement between Israel and the PA. The PA takes this tax money while supporting the BDS movement domestically and abroad. Logically speaking, they should be supporting a company like SodaStream for employing Palestinians who pay local taxes, but instead they just tried to punish us, allowing us to lose our jobs without understanding how the ramifications of their actions also hurt PA economic interests.

When SodaStream called us in May 2017, to tell us that our permits had been renewed and we could begin working at the Idan Hanegev facility in the coming weeks, every single person quit his or her current job in order to return to SodaStream.

18 Months in Limbo

From February 2016 to May 2017, former SodaStream workers were desperate for work.

Daniel Birnbaum did his best to help us find new, comparable employment. He contacted other Israeli factory owners and wrote personal recommendations for many Palestinian employees. He did succeed in finding work for some of us, including me. I worked in a warehouse, where I checked inventory. However, this job had a much lower salary, far less responsibility, and no benefits like those provided by my former job.

While I was working in the warehouse, I found myself thinking constantly about my future. I dreamed of starting a small family business. Yet every week I see that many small businesses in the PA have closed. I researched the possibilities for people like me with knowledge, experience, business connections, and a good reputation to start a business in the PA; it turned out my prospects were limited. There are too many powerful Palestinian “tycoons” who restrict competition. Some Palestinian business leaders act like mafia bosses.

This business environment also does not reflect the preferences of Palestinian consumers.

Although the PA is now boycotting products from Israeli settlements, most Palestinian consumers prefer Israeli produce and goods over Palestinian products.

Other Palestinian SodaStream employees found new employment after they were laid off early in 2016, but nothing was comparable to the salary, benefits, environment, and camaraderie at SodaStream. When SodaStream called us in May 2017 to tell us that our permits had been renewed and we could begin working at the Idan Hanegev facility in the coming weeks, every single person quit his or her current job in order to return to SodaStream.

Whereas SodaStream’s former Mishor Adumim factory was slightly less than 30 kilometers from my village, Jaba’, the Idan Hanegev facility is about 115 kilometers from it. However, this long distance made no difference to me if it meant I could return to my old job, benefits, friends and coworkers, and responsibilities. Other Palestinian employees at SodaStream come from Nablus and Jenin, cities in the northern West Bank that are over 200 kilometers from the Idan Hanegev industrial park.

Regardless of the long distance to the Negev facility, Palestinians prefer to work at SodaStream. Palestinian factory owners seem far less interested in helping their employees.

A Jewish SodaStream worker

A Jewish SodaStream worker in Nabil Basherat’s department, October 2017.
(David Abitbol)

The owners themselves earn high salaries, yet many do not pay their employees fairly. Often payments do not come on time each month, are lower than promised, or do not come at all. Many former SodaStream employees who earned 5,500 shekels a month at the Mishor Adumim plant had earned 1,500 shekels a month under Palestinian employers, working in unsafe conditions and without any social benefits.

Some critics of Israel argue that because Israeli industrial zones exist in the West Bank, there are no Palestinian industrial zones that provide comparable opportunities or conditions. The Oslo Accords, however, included a provision for the creation of joint industrial zones comanaged by Israel and the PA, as well as independent Palestiniancontrolled zones in the West Bank. Yet none of these zones have been created.

Instead, foreign powers are being brought in to manage these zones. In Jenin, a Turkish firm tried to build an industrial zone, but the plan was halted because of a disagreement with the PA over payments.

In Bethlehem, an industrial zone built by the French is nearly devoid of businesses; hardly anyone works there. Many additional attempts to build Palestinian industrial zones by various international governments and entrepreneurs have failed because of the PA’s corruption and ineptitude. The PA is only interested in receiving money from others for bringing in industry, and without these bribes, PA officials would likely be uninterested in these industrial zones.

Hopes and Fears for the Future

There are people in Europe, in other countries in the West, and in the Palestinian leadership who support boycotts. These extremists believe that pressuring Israel economically will expedite the creation of a Palestinian state. They claim that any economic downturn that may result from the BDS efforts is worth the sacrifice for their political cause. I believe it is better for there to be a strong Palestinian state with a stable economy that emerges and gains strength slowly and gradually, through negotiated means. I do not want to see a new Palestinian state that is founded overnight with a weak and struggling economy.

If Palestinian leaders truly want to establish a state, they should first learn how to set up factories and create secure industries. If you want to construct a stable, long-lasting building, you must first make a strong foundation out of stone. I think it is better to have a strong country with a good economy that is created over time than to accept a devastated state without an economy that is created overnight.

Various attempts by international governments and entrepreneurs to build Palestinian industrial zones have failed. The PA has been interested in receiving money from foreign actors to bring in industry. However without bribes, PA officials would likely be uninterested in these industrial zones.

Everyone wants to live with self-confidence, health, physical security, and optimism about their children’s future. I have seven children, and I recently became a grandfather. After being laid off from SodaStream in 2016, I was considering emigrating with my family to the United States. My brother lives in Virginia and my sister lives in Philadelphia; I also have an uncle in New York. Because of the difficult situation in the PA, there is a strong inclination to leave our village and emigrate. This inclination was heightened when I temporarily lost my livelihood and social safety net with my job at SodaStream in 2016. Entire families who were not lucky enough to find work at SodaStream or a comparable business have already sold or abandoned their houses and left. Some have joined the recent wave of migrants from the Middle East to Europe.

The closure of the Israeli industrial zones will increase emigration, diminishing the population and the tax base of a future Palestinian state. The BDS movement is causing Palestinians to leave Palestine. There are Palestinian SodaStream workers who have relatives in Europe and North America. However, they never thought to move away while they were employed at SodaStream. For many, when they were laid off in 2016 and deprived of a stable job and hope of economic advancement, the prospect of emigration became much more appealing.

Entire families who were not lucky enough to find work at SodaStream or a comparable business have already sold or abandoned their houses and left. Some have joined the recent wave of migrants from the Middle East to Europe.

Palestinians who choose to emigrate are exactly the people who could make a difference.

They are the ones who could develop the Palestinian economy. Those who studied at universities, but have nowhere to work are always the first to leave.

SodaStream workers in the Idan HaNegev plant

SodaStream workers in the Idan HaNegev plant, October 2017. (David Abitbol)

The Europeans are launching a campaign to mark all the products sold in Europe that are produced by factories beyond the Green Line. They seem to be marking the products manufactured in all 15 industrial zones in the West Bank as a first step in order to boycott them. They think that this will put pressure on Israel to withdraw from all these areas, and somehow compel the formation of two states for two peoples.

But Europe ignores the voices of Palestinian workers, who depend the most on these industrial zones for their livelihoods. If Israeli business owners needed to move their factories, they could transfer them to China or India at minimal cost. Some could even save money by hiring cheap foreign laborers. They may welcome an excuse like the EU labeling of settlement products, or BDS pressures, to move their factories overseas. The BDS movement and European lawmakers simply do not consider Palestinian workers.

When SodaStream closed its Mishor Adumim facility, 600 Palestinian families temporarily lost their ability to earn a living. This is not the way to create a middle-class base for a Palestinian state.

SodaStream workers in the bottle department

SodaStream workers in the bottle department, October 2017. (David Abitbol)

I want there to be a strong, independent Palestinian state. I want Palestine to be a country with a flourishing economy and a high gross domestic product fueled by local entrepreneurs. But boycotts will only hurt Palestinian workers, and the BDS movement does nothing to address the need for an independent Palestinian economy; it only demonizes Israel.

Boycotts and Palestinian incitement against Israel harm only ourselves, not the Israelis.

The burden falls on me to keep my children busy, to make sure that they do not hear political and religious leaders inciting to terror on TV or the internet, and that they do not participate in gang activity on the streets. I believe that there are dozens of Palestinian organizations that prey on Palestinian youth and adults, especially those who are unemployed and without any economic prospects outside of terror or illegal activity.

Some members of the SodaStream family

Some members of the SodaStream family, October 2017. (David Abitbol)

It is relatively easy for Palestinians to fall into this trap of terror recruitment and incitement. For example, I pay lots of money to my son’s private kindergarten. There are kindergartens very close to Jaba’ that not only provide free education but sometimes even pay families to send their children to them. But they educate the children to become shaheeds, or terrorist martyrs. It gets more difficult for me every day to ensure that my children grow up to be educated and moderate.

The reality is that most Palestinians want to get an education and build a life of hope and stability for ourselves and our children, to feel we have security and dignity, to work and earn money honestly, and to live in peace with the Israelis.

The reality is that most Palestinians want to get an education and build a life of hope and stability for ourselves and our children, to feel we have security and dignity, to work and earn money honestly, and to live in peace with the Israelis. I know that many Israelis, including our CEO Daniel Birnbaum and my Israeli coworkers at SodaStream, care about Palestinians and know what we desire politically and economically. However, we also need to ensure that our own leadership and the international community know what moderate Palestinians want. It is important that they do not fall under the influence of pro-BDS extremists and instead listen to the average Palestinian worker. They have to understand that if they continuing labeling Israeli products and boycotting Israel, they are really hurting Palestinian workers and not the Israeli government or military. The Israelis are strong, they will manage, and have proved that they can successfully fight both terror and political warfare. Palestinians are a different story; if there are not more employers and leaders who will treat us with dignity, we will begin to lose hope for our future.

Nabil Basherat

Nabil Basherat is a manager at the SodaStream factory in Idan Hanegev, Israel, where he oversees a diverse team responsible for engraving, rinsing, spray, inventory, and valves. Basherat has worked at SodaStream in various positions since 2009. At 41, he is a father of seven children, a grandfather, and a resident of the village of Jaba’, located near Ramallah.