Page last updated at 11:29 GMT, Wednesday, 17 June 2009 12:29 UK

Settler vineyards take root in West Bank

A bottle of wine with a view of Israeli vinyards
The settlers say they are heirs of a tradition going back for millennia

Tim Franks
BBC News, Jerusalem

The climate is perfect, the soil just right, the grapes just so. But the occupied West Bank is not obvious wine country.

The growing number of vineyards are punctuated by checkpoints and watchtowers, as well as Palestinian towns and Israeli settlements.

This is land which Israel conquered 42 years ago. But the Jews who have settled the West Bank will tell you their roots in this land lie much deeper.

Yaakob Berg
Yaakov Berg's winery is deemed to be illegal under international law

Yaakov Berg, a fresh-faced wine enthusiast in his 30s, lives in a small shack in the hilltop settlement of Psagot, which abuts the Palestinian city of Ramallah.

In a nearby cave is what Mr Berg proudly says is a 2,000-year-old wine press, proof of the Jews' ancient presence here.

He dances a little jig on the old round stone, to demonstrate how the grapes were once crushed. A short drive away lies his own winery. Opened only a few weeks ago, it is the swankiest in the West Bank.

"The wine is the main thing," he said, amid a tower of oak barrels. "But also we think it's very important to explain to people: listen, we are here, back. And part of that is that we work the land again."

An ancient wine press in a cave in the West Bank
An ancient wine press in a cave near the Israeli settlement of Psagot

Grand plans

Settlement of occupied territory is illegal under international law.

But the Settlers' Council has grand plans for the Psagot winery. The Council is talking about building as many as 20 holiday homes around the winery.

Wine-making, the Council's General Secretary, Pinchas Wallerstein, says, "is some kind of new development... a new way to settle people in the area, even more permanently than mobile houses".

Erez Ben Sa'adon inside his winery
Erez Ben Saadon inside his winery on the outpost of Rehelim

Those mobile houses are sprinkled throughout the West Bank. Many of them are at what the Israelis call outposts - smaller, newer settlements that are unauthorised by the government.

One of the outposts, Rehelim, is home to another boutique winery.

Erez Ben Saadon labels and stores his Tura wine in a small, strip-lit concrete shed.

His vineyards lie in majestic undulating sweeps at a settlement nearby.

Passionate about his job, he kisses the budding grapes in an emotional flourish. And his passion extends to his view of US President Barack Obama's demand that settlement activity stop.

"We're a democratic state," he says. "The only democratic state in the Middle East. And I think the most un-democratic thing happening today is the American administration trying to force us into doing things that go against our own election results."

Unpalatable blend

A couple of hours' drive away, the salons of Tel Aviv are a world apart, the traditional home of Israel's trendy lefties.

But on a swish roof terrace, at an evening tasting for Erez Ben Saadon's wine, the praise gushes.

A Tel Aviv wine tasting evening
Experts say consumers do care whether their wine comes from the West Bank

"The Merlot is excellent," says Shai Segev, wine critic for the Yediot Ahranot newspaper.

Mr Segev says its provenance is unimportant as "wine and politics don't mix".

But Israel's leading wine critic, Daniel Rogov, says there are domestic and overseas consumers who "simply won't" buy the wine because it comes from the occupied West Bank.

In contrast, he says, there are others who lean more towards the "right-wing, Orthodox Jewish side, who will hunt out these wines precisely because they come from there".

Mr Rogov describes himself as a "peacenik". He refuses to travel to the West Bank, but will review its wine, if it is brought to him inside Israel. Year on year, he says, the wine from the occupied territories is not just increasing in quality, but quantity.

Vine settlement

Shai Segev, wine critic for the Yediot Ahranot newspaper
Wine and politics don't mix
Shai Segev, wine critic

The scale of the project is evident as you drive around the West Bank past hill-sides marked with newly cleared swathes of land. By the settlement of Har Beracha, 10 hectares are due to be planted with vineyards within the next two months.

As Shivi Dror, another West Bank winemaker, put it: "When we take over 100 dunams (10 hectares) of land with a single vineyard, it's the same amount of land that 200 houses would cover."

But the neighbouring Palestinian villages say some of the vineyards are being planted on land that is theirs, not just in the sense that it should be part of a Palestinian state, but because they privately own it.

Disputed land

Ibrahim Shabana owns a grocery store in the village of Sinjel. He says settlers are growing grapes on land which has been in his family for more than 100 years.

All that is left for him are a few, straggly vines of his own, on a small, uneven field. "I feel hopeless," he says. He says that he cannot fight the settlers, for fear of violence or arrest by the police, "while the settlers get off free".

For their part, settlers argue that claims of intimidation or theft are often made by Palestinians and seldom proven.

Vineyards by Kokhav Hashachar settlement
Vineyards by Kokhav Hashachar settlement

The Israeli human rights group Yesh Din has begun to track the spread of the vineyards. It says the settlers' insistence that they are only planting vines on state-owned land is simply not true.

On a road overlooking the West Bank vineyards close to the settlement of Shilo, the group's energetic Land Projects Coordinator, Dror Etkes, unfurls a map on the baking hot bonnet of his car.

It is, he says, just one illustration of how vineyards take over land beyond what even Israel says are the authorised boundaries of the settlements, across privately owned Palestinian land.

In a statement, the Civil Administration, the Israeli authority which oversees the West Bank, confirmed that the information on the map is correct.

Map showing vineyards at Givat Harel outpost

Mr Etkes says that dealing with this issue should be a matter for the Israeli authorities, not the American administration.

The scene in front of us, he says, shows how the Israeli government has given a "free ticket" to Israeli settlers to "take as much land as possible in order to Judaise the maximum part of the West Bank".

President Obama has warned that the cost of the settlement enterprise is about to rise. In the meantime, the ambition and spread of the West Bank winemakers continues to grow.

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