By Hazel Ward
US actress Scarlett Johansson has ended her role as Oxfam ambassador following a dispute over her ad campaign for a firm operating in an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank.
Johansson’s departure, announced overnight by her publicist, was welcomed by Palestinian activists on Thursday, although some criticised Oxfam for not acting itself to sever ties with the Hollywood star they branded the “new poster girl for Israeli occupation.”
In a statement, Oxfam confirmed accepting Johansson’s decision to step down, saying her promotion of Israeli drinks firm SodaStream, which has a factory in a settlement east of Jerusalem, was “incompatible” with her role at the international aid agency.
“Oxfam believes that businesses, such as SodaStream, that operate in settlements, further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support,” it said.
“Oxfam is opposed to all trade from Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law.”
And Human Rights Watch’s Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson said: “It is impossible to ignore the Israeli system of unlawful discrimination, land confiscation, natural resource theft, and forced displacement of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, where SodaStream is located.”
The incident shines a spotlight on the creeping success of a campaign to boycott trade linked to Israeli settlements that are built on Palestinian land seized during the Six-Day War of 1967, and viewed by the international community as illegal.
The 29-year-old actress, who has worked with Oxfam since 2005 and was recently crowned the “sexiest woman alive” by Esquire magazine, came under scrutiny earlier this month after she was named global brand ambassador for SodaStream.
The firm, which is based near Tel Aviv and manufactures a device for making carbonated drinks at home, has 25 factories around the world, including one in Mishor Adumim industrial park, near Maaleh Adumim settlement east of Jerusalem.
It employs 800 Palestinians alongside 500 Israelis, a company spokesman told reporters.
Johansson quickly came under fire from boycott activists, who posted a series of provocative images online showing the actress promoting the drinks machine in front of destroyed Palestinian homes and Israel’s towering West Bank barrier.
And Oxfam itself weighed in with a statement expressing its opposition “to all trade from Israeli settlements.”
In response, Johansson insisted SodaStream was committed to “building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine, supporting neighbours working alongside each other, receiving equal pay, equal benefits and equal rights”.
“That is what is happening in their Maaleh Adumim factory every working day,” she said in a statement to The Huffington Post.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) praised Johansson’s statement and commended her “principled opposition” to the “anti-Israel BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement”.
“BDS and anti-Israel activists have long engaged in a smear campaign against SodaStream,” the US-based anti-Semitism watchdog said.
‘Poster girl for occupation’
Johansson’s remarks sparked a firestorm of criticism, with the Palestinian BDS movement demanding Oxfam immediately sever ties with the Hollywood star over her “vocal support for illegal Israeli settlements.”
Following Johansson’s announcement that she was leaving Oxfam, the movement accused her of abandoning her principles to become “the new face of Israeli apartheid.”
“Scarlett Johansson has consciously decided to be the new poster girl for Israeli occupation and apartheid,” co-founder Omar Barghouti told AFP.
The BDS movement has chalked up a growing list of achievements in recent years in its attempt to convince governments, businesses and celebrities to cut all ties with Israel over its activities in the occupied territories, in a bid to repeat the success of the boycott which ended apartheid in South Africa.
Separately, the European Union recently moved to block all grants and funding to any Israeli entity operating beyond the 1967 lines, sparking growing alarm in Israel.
On Thursday, Norway’s sovereign wealth fund blacklisted two Israeli companies involved in construction of settlements in annexed east Jerusalem.
Born in New York to a Jewish mother and a Danish father, Johansson has been nominated four times for Golden Globes, including for her role in “Lost in Translation”.
As well as her stellar acting career she is known for her political activism, and appeared on stage at the Democratic National Convention to call for the re-election of President Barack Obama in 2012.
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