A Star Stumbles in the Settlements; Scarlett Johansson’s defence of her sponsor is naive.

The decision by actress Scarlett Johansson to stop being an ambassador for Oxfam, the social justice charity, and continue as brand ambassador to SodaStream, an Israeli company that makes home-carbonated drink dispensers at a plant in the occupied West Bank, might be dismissed as a storm in a fizzy cup. It should not be.

The Lost in Translation star has accidentally turned a searchlight on an important issue – whether it is right or lawful to do business with companies that operate in illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land – as well as inadvertently sprinkling stardust on the campaign to boycott Israel until it withdraws from the occupied West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem – a separate issue, at least so far.

SodaStream makes some dispensers in Maale Adumim, the biggest of Israel’s West Bank settlements, illegal under international law. It employs about 500 Palestinians and claims to promote jobs and peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews. Ms Johansson says the company is “building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine”. That is naive, as is her conflation of this controversy with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement advocating the isolation of Israel.

The status of the settlements is clear in international law even if Israel chooses to ignore this and expand its colonisation of Palestinian land, while ostensibly negotiating on the creation of a Palestinian state. Last year the EU adopted rules prohibiting grants to entities operating in illegal settlements. Yet the EU still let Israel into Horizon 2020 – the only non-member state in this €80bn research and development programme – making Israeli tech high flyers eligible for European public money provided it is not spent in the settlements.

That is not a boycott. It is the application of the law. Yet if Israel maintains its occupation, and spurns the peace terms being negotiated by US secretary of state John Kerry, such distinctions will erode. European pension funds are already starting to pull their investments in Israeli banks with branches in the settlements.

Israeli leaders, from former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert to Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid, justice and finance ministers in the present rightwing government of Benjamin Netanyahu, have warned that Israel faces ostracism unless it makes a deal on Palestine. Now it is the settlements that are being targeted. But that could easily morph into a general boycott.

It is disingenuous to romanticise settlement enterprises. The occupation imprisons thousands of the Palestinians’ young men, gives their land and water to settlers, demolishes their houses and partitions the remaining territory with scores of checkpoints and segregated roads. There are almost no basic foundations for an economy. The way to create Palestinian jobs is to end the occupation and let Palestinians build those foundations – not to build “bridges to peace” on other people’s land without their permission.

January 31st 2014