Israel ‘sacrifices Palestinian workers to discredit BDS campaign’

Seventy-four Palestinian employees of fizzy drinks machine maker SodaStream have lost their jobs after Israel refused to renew their work permits. The company's manager believes the government forced the job losses to undermine the boycott movement.

Palestinian Nabil Bisharat, who lost his job at SodaStream after Israel refused to renew his work permit, plays with his 18-month-old daughter, Ummia. Heidi Levine for The National
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AL BIREH // Worry for the loved ones he supports has been weighing on Nabil Bisharat since he lost his job at fizzy drinks machine producer SodaStream on Monday after the Israeli government refused to renew his work permit.

For Mr Bisharat, a father of seven, and 73 other Palestinians whose permits expired on February 29, the government’s decision has sent them from financial stability and prospects for advancement with the Israeli company to struggling to find work in the depressed West Bank economy.

“It’s a shock,” Mr Bisharat said over lightly sweetened coffee at a cafe in Al Bireh, the twin city of Ramallah that is close to his home in the village of Jaba. “Until the last moment I didn’t believe they would fire us.”

Mr Bisharat, 42, started at SodaStream six years ago and worked his way up from assembly worker to shift manager to line manager and, three years ago, to head of a department. He had 53 people working under him, about half of them Israeli Jews. Now he may have to go back to the job he did before joining SodaStream, working as a baker.

The dismissals also end what workers say was SodaStream’s status as a rare island of coexistence where Palestinians and Israelis got along and became close despite all the tensions and violence swirling around them.

“Whoever wasn’t there wouldn’t believe it,” Mr Bisharat said. “It’s like a big family, with a lot of friendships. I’m not a politician, I’m a simple man but that’s the reality. Both Arabs and Jews reached the point of not rejecting the other and wanting to live in the same land in peace. They share our celebrations, our sorrows, everything. When someone feels sorry we share it, it’s sharing feelings, not only work.”

Co-workers organised goodbye breakfasts and lunches for the departing Palestinians and a colleague of Mr Bisharat’s treated a group of them to a day out at the marina of the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon. On Monday, before the Palestinians got on the bus back to West Bank for the last time, hundreds of workers formed a huge peace sign outside the plant.

In response to a query as to why the work permits were denied, the prime minister’s office replied that “the policy of the government is to give priority to the employment of Israeli workers”.

But with plans already approved by Israel's security cabinet to give work permits to another 30,000 Palestinians from the West Bank in addition to the 58,000 who already have permits, according to the Haaretz newspaper, it seems puzzling that the 74 could not be accommodated. And these figures do not take into account the estimated 30,000 Palestinians from the West Bank who work in Israel illegally.

“I’ve been working on this 25 hours a day, I’ve spoken with every minister or senior executive in the Israeli government and they are sending me from one official to the next, making excuses about preferring Israeli employees,” said SodaStream chief executive Daniel Birnbaum. “It’s ridiculous. There is no way 74 people will change anything in the dynamics of the Israeli economy.”

Mr Birnbaum said the Palestinian workers were being victimised by the government in a bid to discredit the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which calls for boycotts against Israel over its occupation of the West Bank.

In late 2014 SodaStream closed its plant at the West Bank settlement industrial zone of Mishor Adumim and moved to Lehavim in southern Israel following a BDS campaign that included targeting Hollywood actress Scarlett Johansson, who advertised the company’s products. More than 500 Palestinian employees – mostly people ineligible for permits to enter Israel – lost their jobs, while 74 were given temporary permits and moved with the company to Lehavim.

The Israeli government makes its case against boycotts by stressing that those who pay the price are the Palestinian workers who lose their jobs with the closures of plants.

“Apparently my 74 employees are being sacrificed to make a claim that BDS is hurting the Palestinians,” Mr Birnbaum said. “But I don’t believe in human sacrifice. I will not allow this immoral act to go unchallenged. This act of preventing the Palestinians coming to their jobs is an act of the Israeli government, it’s not an act of BDS. I’m ashamed and still hope someone in the government, especially the prime minister, will realise this injustice and fix it. You don’t throw people into the street to make a political point.”

Mr Birnbaum said that if the government persisted in its refusal to grant the work permits, the company would not abandon the workers. “We will figure out a way for the Palestinians to work in the Palestinian Authority. We can shift some production from Israel to them. We’ll figure something out.”

Mr Bisharat said his SodaStream salary was enough to support his family and, together with his siblings, his parents. He was also able save enough to build a house and buy two pieces of land. His 16-year-old son is studying carpentry and he had hoped to build a factory for him. “I thought my entire career would be with SodaStream. It was my plan to stay for another 10 years. I could have got more promotions.”

Of the 74 people laid off on Monday “most are managers, shift managers and line managers”, Mr Bisharat said.

“It’s difficult for them to start as simple workers again. It’s very difficult.”