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Ethics & Politics of Israeli Wine from the West Bank

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Wine Press Ruins in Israel from the Talmudic period (100 - 400 CE)

Wine Press Ruins in Israel from Talmudic period (100 - 400 CE)
Photo © goldberg

Israel may not be famous for its wines, but Israeli wine makers export several different type of wine and are expanding their production facilities into the West Bank lands that once belonged to Palestinians. Several Israeli vineyards already exist in the West Bank, but they have big plans for increasing the amount of land planted with grapes as well as holiday housing for tourists. As a sign of the underlying problems, the vineyards may be watched over by guard towers and well-armed guards for protection.

Choosing wine is usually a question of taste, not politics, but it's impossible to be completely apolitical when drinking Israeli wine — especially now. Perhaps no wine choice is completely free of any political implications, but they are far more significant with Israeli wine because it is increasingly being created on disputed land in Palestinian areas and all are grown with water largely denied to Palestinians who are thus denied the ability to grow food for eating.

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.

Source: BBC

One means by which land can be stolen from Palestinians is with military collusion. To protect illegal settlements, barriers are put up that separate Palestinian villages from their agricultural lands. Not being able to get to this land means that it must go uncultivated, and agricultural land which goes uncultivated for three years can be "legally" confiscated by the government. Then, the settlers can begin using it.

So if wine truly has been created from grapes grown on land stolen from Palestinians, how ethical is it to drink? Is Israeli wine produced on West Bank land and water not literally the fermented fruit of state-sanctioned theft and oppression? Even if its true that Jews owned and produced wine on the same land a couple of millennia ago, that doesn't create an automatic right to do so again today — especially when others are living on and using the land.

Some Israelis, though, have no ethical compunction about reviewing and drinking this wine:

"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.

Although people usually see land as the foundation of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians — think "land for peace" proposals — water may be even more fundamental and important. This region is arid and has limited water resources. No matter how much land you control, it will do you little good in the long term is you lack the water needed for agriculture, sanitation, hydroelectric power, and just drinking. Early Zionists recognized this immediately and set about creating large irrigations projects to both develop the land and create a foundation for the expected influx of Jewish immigrants.

In the Encyclopedia of the Palestinians, Philip Mattar explains how Israel, the Israeli military, and Israeli settlers have worked to deprive Palestinians of basic water resources:

Israel effectively acted as a sovereign over the water resources in the West Bank and Gaza and over the areas of the Jordan River basin under its control. It declared the area adjacent to the Jordan River in the West Bank a closed military area, denying the Palestinians access to both land and water. Concerning the rest of the West Bank and Gaza, Israel issued a series of military orders—the main form of legislation in the two Palestinian regions under Israeli occupation—arrogating for itself the power to license well drilling and to set pumping quotas for those already drilled, enforced through metering and inspection.

Israel also “leased” for forty-nine years—the standard period of stand-land lease in Israel—the management of the water sector in the West Bank and Gaza to Mekorot, the quasi-state-run Israeli water company. At the same time, the Palestinian water management bodies that had been in existence before 1967 were marginalized and relegated to administrative functions. Policy and technical matters were all put in the hands of the Israeli state’s representatives. ...

Water use in Palestine is characterized by a wide gap between the Israelis and Palestinians as well as between Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Israelis. The gap is manifested in the quantity and quality of the water used, level of service, and irrigation of agricultural land. Overall, Israel extracts more than 90 percent of the groundwater for its own and its settlers’ use, compared to less than 10 percent used by the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Of the water specifically from the West Bank, Palestinians have access to only 18 percent. ...

In the Jordan basin, since 1967 Israel has diverted between 600 and 700 mcm/y. This quantity exceeds by 200–300 mcm/y Israel’s quota of 400 mcm/y under the Johnston plan. The Palestinians, on the other hand, received none of the basin’s water, even though the West Bank had been allotted 215 mcm/y under the plan. Even the small amounts that Palestinian farmers had pumped directly from the river to water crops along its western bank has been denied them since 1967, when Israel turned the river in the West Bank into a closed military area.

When we look at just the water usage for irrigated, agricultural lands the situation is as bad or worse:

[T]he irrigated area is four to five times greater per Israeli than per Palestinian, so that 95 percent of the irrigable land in Israel is irrigated, compared to only 25–33 percent in the West Bank. Yet agriculture is responsible for a minuscule 2 to 3 percent of the Israeli gross national product (GNP), whereas between 24 and 30 percent of Palestinian GNP comes from agriculture (Zeitoun, 2004). A similar gap can also be seen in Israel itself among Jews and Palestinians. ...

The irrigation water gap is also evident in the types of crops grown by the two sides. The Palestinians irrigate virtually no crops other than vegetables and fruits, whereas the Israelis irrigate, in addition to horticultural crops, large areas of such field crops as wheat and cotton. Further, large amounts of irrigation water in Israel are devoted to export crops, chiefly vegetables, citrus, cotton, and flowers.

When a person drinks Israeli wine created from grapes grown on the West Bank, they are almost certainly drinking wine that was created with land and water that should have been used by Palestinians for growing foods and maybe even water needed just to drink, but which had been taken away through unethical or illegal means in order to deprive them of the ability to live. Thus when a person drinks such Israeli wine, they make themselves complicit in what's being done to Palestinians in order to produce that wine.

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