A soft drinks company is at the heart of a row over human rights and international conflict. SodaStream recently opened its flagship Ecostream store in Western Road, Brighton. The city was chosen as the location because bosses believed people in Brighton and Hove would be in tune with its aim to “unbottle” the world.
As well as selling SodaStream products, the refill store pumps household products such as laundry detergents, beauty products and cooking ingredients into reuseable containers. But soon after its opening preview, attended by members of the city’s Green council administration including council leader Jason Kitcat, the shop became the centre of a furious war of words between anti-Israel activists and their opponents.
The activists argue that the shop’s eco-image is a mask which disguises the fact that it has set up a factory on land confiscated from Palestinians west of the Jordan River. They aim to persuade shoppers to boycott the shop and have vowed to demonstrate outside the premises until it is closed down. Their opponents say the protests are stirring up anti-Jewish feeling. Shoppers in Western Road have found themselves caught between the two vociferous camps. Sussex Police insists that people have the right to peaceful protest and that officers will balance this right against those of other people to go about their lawful business.
A spokesman said: “No arrests have been necessary to date, but if specific crimes are reported then these will, of course, be investigated thoroughly.”
Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas, whose constituency includes the store, has been criticised by some members of the city’s Jewish community over her support for the demonstrations. She was invited by SodaStream to visit its factories.
She said: “My work in the constituency and in Parliament takes priority and I do not have the capacity to make such a trip at present. “I have visited Israel and Palestine on a number of occasions, on both official delegations and other trips, and seen for myself the realities of life on the ground.
“I repeat that I do not support calls for the store on Western Road to close. What I do support is the principle that my constituents and others in the city have the right to protest peacefully to express their views. However, there is a very clear distinction between peaceful protest and aggressive harassment, and I would expect the authorities to take action if direct intimidation or harassment of customers and staff at the store were to occur.”
At the invitation and expense of SodaStream I travelled to Israel and the West Bank to talk to the company’s management and to workers at the firm’s plant in Mishor Adumim. It is a high-tech modern facility employing 442 Palestinians, 237 Israeli Arabs and 107 Israel-born Jews. The factory is east of the Green Line, the demarcation lines set out in the 1949 Armistice Agreements between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The position of the British Government is that settlements beyond the Green Line are illegal. But there is nothing illegal about SodaStream’s business. It is situated in Area C of the Occupied Territories, established in 1993 under the Oslo Accords. Under Israeli law, companies are free to open businesses in the area. The firm also has factories in Alon Tavor and Ashkelon in Israel.
Daniel Birnbaum, the company’s articulate, energetic and enthusiastic chief executive, told me the company has annual revenues of more than £250m. It is listed on Nasdaq and its products are carried by more than 50,000 stores around the world. He was adamant that the store in Brighton would not be closed by the demonstrations. Mr Birnbaum revealed that SodaStream is working on a huge new facility in the south of Israel near Rahat. The plant will provide jobs for around 1,000 workers, many of them Bedouins. But he insisted that the Mishor plant will not be absorbed into the new facility.
He said: “No one is going to stop us. We do not seek confrontation but we will not close the shop in Brighton.
Palestinians, Jews and Christians all work together at SodaStream. If you could reproduce what we are doing across the area you would have peace.
“The best thing I could do for SodaStream’s bottom line is move production to China. I won’t do that. We pay our workers three times the Israeli national average. We give them healthcare. Unemployment in the Palestine Authority region is around 30 per cent. Why would anyone want us to stop employing Palestinian workers?”
After speaking with Mr Birnbaum, I travelled to Jabba, on the outskirts of Ramallah , the capital of the Palestine Authority, to visit the home of Yousef Besharat who works as an assembly line manager at the Mishor factory. Yousef, in his early 20s, told me that with one year’s salary he has built a house in Jabba which he was looking forward to moving into. He said he had job security and a future. This is not to say that the daily grind of checkpoints and hassle is not corrosive. Yousef ’s brother, who also works as a supervisor at SodaStream, summed up the dilemma: “We hate the occupation. But we like our jobs.”
The workers’ determination to get on with the day-to-day job of earning a living despite local difficulties is shared by the staff at the Ecostream store back in Brighton.
Store manager Steve Bannatyne said this is the most successful opening in his experience.
He said: “I have opened eight stores in diverse sectors. This is a new concept and it is bedding in. Sales are growing – slowly, but they are moving in the right direction.”