Israeli settlement factory sparks Super Bowl-sized controversy

MAALE ADUMIM, WEST BANK (REUTERS) - Appliance maker SodaStream International scored big in nabbing A-list actress Scarlett Johansson as its global brand ambassador in time for this year's Super Bowl advertising bonanza.

The limelight, though, can be harsh. While the multi-million dollar deal may have increased brand awareness, it also strengthened calls for a boycott of the Israel-based company, whose main factory lies in a Jewish settlement deep in the occupied West Bank. The row comes at a particularly delicate time, with Israel and Palestinians engaged in fractious peace talks and international pressure building on Israel to roll back its growing settlement network.

Johansson's playful advertisement had already sparked controversy ahead of its planned debut at the American football championship on Sunday for an overt dig at competitors. The company promptly agreed to edit out the offending line, but the issue of settlements cannot be so easily waved away.

Critics accuse SodaStream of benefiting from cheap land and tax breaks afforded to Israeli industries in the occupied West Bank - territory seized in the 1967 war which the Palestinians want for their eventual future state.

"Settlements and occupation will never lead to peace," the head of the Palestinian Workers Union, Mr Shaher Saad, told Reuters. "I support a boycott that will lead to these lands and means of economic growth returning to Palestinian ownership."

Representatives of SodaStream, which is listed on Nasdaq in New York, say the Israeli and Palestinian workers at the plant receive equal wages and benefits that far exceed those offered in Palestinian-run areas.

SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum told Reuters his company helped put food on the table for hundreds of Palestinian families daily.

"We're very proud to be here and contribute to the co-existence and hopefully the peace in this region," he said.

Johansson released a statement to the Huffington Post on Friday praising SodaStream for "supporting neighbours working alongside each other, receiving equal pay, equal benefits and equal rights."

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