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The company SodaStream, which sells a gadget for making carbonated drinks at home, has been at the heart of a Middle East controversy the last couple years. It was an Israeli company operating in the West Bank. Palestinians seek that land for their state. Groups have mobilized to boycott Israeli companies there. Even actress Scarlett Johansson came under fire for endorsing the soda machines.
SodaStream closed its West Bank operations last year, moving them to less controversial turf inside Israel. But the CEO is not happy, and neither are Palestinian workers who were laid off. NPR's Emily Harris reports.
EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Mustafa Sharbati used to be a machine operator for SodaStream. He's now a freelance truck driver. Business is so slow this father of four is buying groceries on credit. But Sharbati didn't even try to get an Israeli permit to work at SodaStream in Israel.
MUSTAFA SHARBATI: (Through interpreter) First, it's too far to go. I have a family, and I'm scared to cross checkpoints and travel in Israel.
HARRIS: Not Ala Al-Qabbani, another ex-employee. He would've happily kept working for SodaStream in Israel.
ALA AL-QABBANI: (Through interpreter) When I was working for SodaStream I would, on my day off, go and have a good time - go shopping, buy clothes. Now I can do none of this.
HARRIS: His problem is he could not get a permit to enter Israel to work in the new factory. For a work permit, Israel requires Palestinians to be married. Qabbani is single. I asked him if that might change.
Do you have any prospects? Like any, you know, girls?
AL-QABBANI: (Through interpreter) There are girls, but I need to get money before I can propose.
HARRIS: That will take a while. He now earns $12 a day, about 25 percent of his old salary. His new job is hawking produce from a street cart not far from where SodaStream used to be.
AL-QABBANI: (Speaking foreign language).
HARRIS: So who's responsible for these Palestinians losing their jobs? SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum claims the move was due to company growth, not because of pressure to leave the West Bank. And he wanted all his Palestinian employees to keep working in Israel as an example of co-existence.
DANIEL BIRNBAUM: We had about 500. We tried to bring 350 into Israel, begging the Israeli government to give me permits.
HARRIS: The company got 74. But earlier this month, those were revoked. Birnbaum blames Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for putting the Palestinians out of work.
BIRNBAUM: I have jobs for them in Israel, and Benjamin Netanyahu is not letting them get to their jobs. And that's why I'm furious.
HARRIS: The prime minister's office wouldn't respond to SodaStream's criticism except to say the permits were always known to be temporary and the government prioritizes jobs for Israeli citizens. With tens of thousands of Palestinians working in Israel daily, Birnbaum's not buying that.
BIRNBAUM: Now how is it that my 74 are the ones who are going to take down the Israeli economy? He's using my 74 Palestinians who've been working with us for six years to make a political point.
HARRIS: Birnbaum thinks the government is trying to make this point - it's groups that pressure Israeli companies to leave the West Bank that cause Palestinians to lose their jobs. Israel fights these groups at every turn because many see them as opposing Israel's very existence. The main pressure group is called Boycott Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS.
BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti acknowledges some Palestinians do pay a price when their Israeli employers move, but he blames Israel for making Palestinians economically dependent on Israel and SodaStream for participating.
OMAR BARGHOUTI: Israel has made many farmers go into the work factories because it confiscated our most fertile lands with its wall and illegal settlements. SodaStream was bragging that oh, Palestinian workers in SodaStream are getting better pay than Palestinian workers in Palestinian factories. Of course - the Palestinian economy is entirely a captive economy under Israel's occupation.
HARRIS: In the kitchen of Palestinian Nabil Bisharat, the SodaStream machine has run out of gas. Bisharat lost his job as a SodaStream manager. He has worked for other Israelis and liked them, but says SodaStream was the best.
NABIL BISHARAT: It was the prefect company. It was a five-star company for the Palestinian workers to work in. It's a good job - good money, good salary, good conditions. And they treat all workers equally. They're all the same.
HARRIS: He declines naming who to blame, but he would like his job back. Failing that, he dreams of a way he could start his own business and employ at least some of his former colleagues. Emily Harris, NPR News, the West Bank.
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