Israeli firms shed crocodile tears for Palestinian workers
Palestinian workers line up at an Israeli checkpoint near Bethlehem.
Whenever calls are made to ban goods from illegal settlements in the West Bank, Israel’s standard response is that sanctions of that nature would have an adverse effect on Palestinian workers.
The argument has been trotted out quite a few times lately as some representatives of the European Union have advocated economic measures against Israel.
In March, Gershon Mesika, chairman of the Samaria Regional Council — a local authority for Israeli settlements — warned that an EU ban on settlement goods would hurt the industrial zones in the occupied West Bank, a primary source of jobs for Palestinians (“EU parliamentarians in whirlwind tour of Samaria,” Israel National News, 13 March).
Later in the month, Yaakov Berg, founder of Psagot Winery, claimed his vineyards in the West Bank “provide good jobs for Palestinians that pay three or four times what they could earn elsewhere” (“Israel’s vineyards: the West Bank’s grapes of wrath,” The Daily Telegraph, 24 March).
And before Barack Obama’s trip to Israel, David Ha’ivri, director of the Shomron Liaison Office and a supporter of Israeli settlements, challenged the American president to visit the West Bank. Obama, he added, should “look into the eyes of Abed,” who has worked for 20 years in a factory in the Barkan industrial zone near the settlement of Ariel, and who, along with other Palestinians, “consider themselves lucky to have secure jobs” and “do not look forward to having all this closed down” (“Obama: come visit Shomron!” The Jerusalem Post, 27 February).
What these supposed defenders of Palestinian workers conveniently fail to mention is that numerous Palestinian organizations launched a call in 2005 for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Significantly, the call is supported by all Palestinian trade unions.
The responsibility for determining how to best achieve their rights and what sacrifices they are willing to make belongs to Palestinians, not those who profit from the Israeli occupation.
Maintaining Palestinian jobs was not exactly a priority for settlers in 2010 when thePalestinian Authority announced a boycott of Israeli settlements. The Yesha Council, an umbrella organization for authorities in the settlements, urged the Israeli government to block all Palestinian imports and exports (“Settlers: PA boycott – economic terror,” Ynet, 18 May 2010). Uri Ariel, the current minister of housing and himself a settler, called on Israelis to fire Palestinian workers (“MK: ‘PA boycotting Israeli goods? Boycott back, fire workers,” Israel National News, 3 March 2010).
The Coalition of Women for Peace — a group of Israeli and Palestinian activists — had encountered this supposed concern for Palestinian welfare in the course of research for its Who Profits from the Occupation? project. So the group decided to respond. Earlier this year, it published a position paper detailing the conditions of Palestinian workers in Israeli settlements (“Palestinian workers in settlements,” January 2013 [PDF]).
The paper stated that in 2011, around 27,000 Palestinians had permits to work in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. In order to obtain or renew work permits, Palestinians depend on the Israeli Civil Administration, which, despite its name, is part of the Israeli military, as well as the Israeli internal security service, the Shin Bet.
While Israeli labor laws also technically apply to settlement businesses, they are rarely enforced in the West Bank. According to a report commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council, “between 2006 and 2010 only four audits were conducted in the 20 industrial zones/settlements operating in the West Bank.”
In addition, work permits, which can be revoked at any time, serve as a not-so-gentle deterrent for workers interested in getting involved in trade unions or other political activity.
The Israeli organization Machsom Watch has documented how the Shin Bet uses blacklisting of Palestinians as an instrument of oppression against Palestinians, as well as a way of creating a pool of potential collaborators (“Invisible prisoners,” April 2012 [PDF]). Palestinians who find themselves blacklisted not only have no hope of obtaining a work permit, or any other type of permit for that matter, but also have no way of learning why they were placed on the list.
“Exposed to danger”
There are also 10,000 Palestinians who work in settlements without permits, especially for seasonal agricultural work, where children as young as 12 are employed. According to the Coalition of Women for Peace, “93 percent of Palestinian workers in settlements have no union or committee to represent them. Their vast majority, including experienced and skilled workers, earn less than the Israeli minimum wage, many of them earning less than half the minimum wage. Their wages are often withheld, their social rights are denied and they are exposed to danger in the workplace.”
The coalition’s report refers to an unpublished study by Dr. Majid Sbeih of Al-Quds University, which states that “11 percent of Palestinian workers in settlements work on confiscated lands originally owned by their families or one of their relatives” and 82 percent “have the desire and willingness to leave their jobs in the settlements, provided that a suitable alternative is available.”
However, after decades of occupation, restrictions on the movement of people and goods, blocks on construction, theft of natural resources, control over imports and exports and policies designed to protect Israeli companies from competition by Palestinian industries, the Palestinian economy is unable to offer alternatives.
No one has trumpeted more the idea of the occupation as beneficial to Palestinians than SodaStream, the Israeli producer of fizzy drink machines sold around the world, whose main manufacturing facilities are in the illegal settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. SodaStream has become a target of the BDS movement, with active campaigns in Europe, North America, Australia and Japan.
As the boycott campaign against SodaStream expanded, the company looked to its Palestinian workers for help in cleaning up it tarnished image. In June 2011, SodaStream declared that 160 out of its total number of employees in Ma’ale Adumim were Palestinians. By February this year, the figure had jumped to 900 Palestinians out of a total workforce of 1,100 (“Boycott Israel push against SodaStream could hurt Palestinian workers,” The Jewish Daily Forward, 10 February).
In December 2012, a very professional 8.5 minute video appeared on YouTube, presenting Sodastream’s settlement factory as a happy island in the occupied West Bank.
The video includes footage of Palestinian workers at the factory, the luxury coach that apparently takes them from their villages to the settlement, the factory “mosque,” and Sodastream chief executive Daniel Birnbaum patting workers on the shoulders and explaining that SodaStream “builds bridges, not walls.”
Responding to the video, the Palestinian Christian organization Kairos Palestinedescribed the vision of reality presented as “cynical at best; at worst, it is criminally misleading.” The letter from Kairos Palestine went on the say “the emphasis on SodaStream’s economic benefits for its workers is, under the circumstances of occupation, absurd and offensive: what Palestinians need is freedom, not fancier oppression. It doesn’t matter if our cage is made of iron or gold: it is a cage” (“Kairos Palestine responds to hasbara film of SodaStream,” 7 March).
In his interviews, Birnbaum has never missed an opportunity to tout the benefits reserved for Palestinian workers in SodaStream’s settlement factory or warn against harm they would suffer due to boycotts. It has never once occurred to him, however, to utter a single word challenging the colonial system that limits Palestinians to looking for work in a factory on Palestinian land stolen through occupation and ethnic cleansing.
Lesson from South Africa
It is interesting to revisit an attempt to obtain rights for the oppressed by means of engaging with corporations when South Africa was under white minority rule.
In 1977, Reverend Leon Sullivan developed a code of ethics for companies operating in South Africa. A religious leader and a member of the board of directors of General Motors, one largest employers of black South Africans that was also complicit with theapartheid regime, Sullivan believed that persuading companies to endorse the code’s six principles represented a gradual approach that would avoid putting black workers at risk. These principles included ending segregation in the workplace, equal pay and training and advancement opportunities for blacks and colored people.
Several large US companies, including Ford, General Motors, IBM and Union Carbide, signed on immediately, with other companies added later bringing the total to more than 130 endorsers. Ronald Reagan, a strong ally of the regime in South Africa, also supported the Sullivan Principles as part of his “constructive engagement” policy.
A public statement published in 1979 and signed by some 60 religious leaders, trade unions, academics and human rights organizations called into question the true effects of Sullivan’s code of ethics. Titled “The Sullivan Principles: No Cure for Apartheid,” the statement argued that the Sullivan Principles had “developed rapidly into a major defense of US business activity in South Africa” and were being used to undermine divestment campaigns.
The signatories of the statement argued that firms tended to endorse the Sullivan Principles “not as a result of genuine change in corporate attitudes but as a public relations effort,” providing “precisely what the companies were looking for: a guaranteed public relations success which promised maximum credit for minimum change.” The reforms proposed by the code, which were voluntary and provided no means for enforcement, were confined to the workplace and raised no objections to the system of apartheid that was the source of injustice in South Africa. “Africans are not struggling and dying to reform apartheid,” the statement added. “They want nothing less than the abolition of the system.”
Ten years later, Sullivan abandoned his principles, disappointed that they had not had the expected impact. Sullivan instead called on companies to withdraw completely from all business activities in South Africa and on the US government to impose sanctions (“Leon Sullivan, 78, dies; fought apartheid,” The New York Times, 26 April 2001).
SodaStream, along with other supporters of oppression, occupation and apartheid, are using Palestinian workers in an attempt to give legitimacy to an unjust system, reinforcing the idea that Palestinians should make do with a job, rather than fight for every right they are due.
Freedom, justice and equality demanded by the Palestinian people will certainly not come from businesses complicit with the same colonial system that denies those same rights, but from its abolition. The Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions is the best way to ensure that Palestinians, in the words of Desmond Tutu, are not reduced to “picking up crumbs of compassion thrown from the table of someone who considers himself [their] master,” but rather have “the full menu of rights.”
Stephanie Westbrook is a US citizen based in Rome, Italy. Her articles have been published on Common Dreams, Counterpunch, The Electronic Intifada, In These Times and Z Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @stephinrome.