Promptly at 1.00 pm every Saturday for over a year two factions assemble outside an unremarkable shop in Brighton unpack their flags, placards and leaflets to rekindle an old conflict.
The Ecostream shop is owned by Sodastream, an Israeli company. One of their factories is in a settlement on the disputed West Bank . Pro-Palestinian groups say the Israeli settlements are illegal and gather outside to urge people to boycott Sodastream. Pro-Israel groups form a counter protest
The shop in Western Road should be welcomed in green Brighton. It stocks quality household products, olive oil to detergents, many locally sourced. It encourages customers to bring their own containers and pay for a product by weight. It also sells Sodastream’s carbonated drink maker and two weeks after it opened in August 2012 the protests began.
This September, on a day of action organized by the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign about one hundred protesters turn up.
The pro-Palestine group were on one side of the road pro-Israel on the other. The atmosphere was good-humoured. The Israelis had the better banter. They contended that the opposition were against fizzy drinks and parties. A placard read “Bagels against Bigotry.”
There was a sizeable police presence, a van lurked around the corner and one policeman videoed the Palestinian side. He held the camera barely a foot from their faces.
Most Saturdays only twenty or thirty protestors turn up for the two hour stand-off. They mingle outside the shop many are pensioners.
Some chant, others stand alone holding a leaflet against their chest. There are only a couple of police present, they tell off anyone who gets too boisterous. A lone security guard stands calmly by the shop doorway.
Steve Ballentine is the shop manager, a Scot, he has been involved in a number of start-up projects but this is his first for Sodastream. He says he was unaware of the controversy and has had only one short visit to the factory.
He seems resigned to the protest but says: “Nobody has been arrested and there hasn’t been any violence but a student padlocked himself to the door and the locks have been super glued.”
Two weeks after the shop’s opening in August last year Mr Ballentine was on a Welsh hillside with his family for a much needed holiday. He received a phone call from shop staff. There were people protesting outside.
He is passionate when describing the ethos of the shop, how they searched for local suppliers, the ecological benefits of customers re-using and not recycling plastic containers.
It’s Saturday afternoon and the shop is its empty, he is aware that the protest is affecting business. Although he appreciates the Israeli supporters he says: “I don’t know if they’re helping the shop or just attracting the other side.”
Outside Susan Gleitman, 57, is pro-Israel she says: “It’s not just about supporting the shop. Sodastream employs many Palestinians and they work under the same conditions as the Israelis.”
“So how can they complain about human-rights?” gesturing towards the opposition.
The opposition includes John Gleisner, a retired doctor, he worked in West Bank mental health hospitals for six years. He supports the boycott and says: “I’m not ant-Semitic, I’m anti-Zionist and it’s important to distinguish between them.”
He says: “ Anti-semitism is racist but being anti-Zionism is being opposed to colonialism.”
Protestors from both sides try to engage passersby but most wave away the leaflets. From across the road a middle aged man shouts: “Get a life.” Families irritably thread their way through as they hurry to the retail delights of Churchill Square.
Distributing leaflets supporting the Palestinian cause is Grace Belinda, she is petite, dapper and 96. She has just come back from Balcombe where she has been protesting against fracking.
She once worked as a nurse in the Gaza Strip and talks affectionately about the Palestinians. She says:“I am not anti-Jewish or anti Israeli. It’s about fairness and fighting injustice. The land belongs to Palestine.”
Sodastream had a turnover this year of over $400 million and has released a video to contest the boycott: “Building bridges not walls .” It says it is providing equal opportunity employment to Palestinians.”
Barry Stierer from Brighton & Hove Palestine Solidarity Campaign doesn’t deny Sodastream employs Palestinians he says: “This has to be understood in the context of a military occupation and a largely destroyed Palestinian economy. You or I would probably make the same difficult decision if we were offered work there and had a family to feed.”
Approaching 3 o’clock when the protest is due to end both sides begin packing away the leaflets and placards. By ten past three only the security guard remains and the old conflict is over for another week.