US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s expected tour of a winery in the occupied West Bank this week marks the first time a top American diplomat has visited an illegal Israeli settlement.
The Psagot winery, established in part on land the Palestinians say was stolen from local residents, is part of a sprawling network of Israeli settlements in the West Bank that are considered illegal under international law and a major obstacle in peace negotiations.
The winery, located in Jabal al-Tawil, just outside the West Bank city of Ramallah, is a focus of Israel’s efforts to promote tourism in the occupied territory and a potent symbol of its fight against campaigns to boycott or label products from the settlements.
Pompeo’s expected visit, reported by Israeli media but not officially confirmed, would mark a stunning departure from his predecessors, who frequently criticised settlement construction.
US President Donald Trump has given unprecedented support to Israel and has already broken with his predecessors by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and repudiating the decades-old US position that settlements are inconsistent with international law. The administration has also recognised Israel’s annexation of the occupied Golan Heights, seized from Syria in the 1967 war, where Pompeo may also pay a visit.
Trump’s so-called Middle East plan, which overwhelmingly favoured Israel and was immediately rejected by the Palestinians, would have allowed Israel to annex nearly one-third of the West Bank, including all of its settlements.
During Trump’s term in office, Israel has approved thousands of new settlement homes, including in highly contested areas.
The visit to the winery – which released a blended red wine named for the secretary last year – would be yet another gift to Israel in the final weeks of Trump’s presidency, even as neither Trump nor Pompeo has acknowledged President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.
The visit could also burnish Pompeo’s credentials with evangelical Christians and other supporters of Israel should he pursue a post-Trump political career.
The Falic family of Florida, owners of the ubiquitous chain of Duty-Free Americas shops, is a major investor in the winery.
An Associated Press news agency investigation last year found the family has donated at least $5.6m to settler groups in the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem over the past decade. Since 2000, they have donated at least $1.7m to pro-Israel politicians in the US, both Democrats and Republicans, including Trump.
Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the 1967 war, territories the Palestinian leadership want for their future independent state. Since then, it has built some 130 settlements and dozens of smaller illegal outposts, ranging from clusters of mobile homes on remote hilltops to fully developed towns.
More than 460,000 Israeli settlers reside in the West Bank and more than 220,000 live in East Jerusalem.
The Palestinians say the settlements make it nearly impossible to create a viable state – which was one of the main goals of the settlers who established them. Much of Jerusalem is already blocked off from the West Bank by a series of checkpoints and a separation barrier built by Israel.
The Palestinians say many of the settlements, including Psagot and its winery, were built on land stolen from private Palestinian owners. The residents of the nearby town of Al-Bireh – many of whom are American citizens – say the settlement gobbled up their land after Israel built a fence around Psagot during the Palestinian uprising in the early 2000s.
Kainat and Karema Quraan, two sisters from Al-Bireh, say they have documents showing they own a plot of land on which some of the vineyards and a winery building were established.
“Imagine that your own land, your property, that you lived off of and your ancestors lived off of, is taken like this by strangers, by force, and you can’t touch it,” Kainat said.
Yaakov Berg, the chief executive of the winery, did not respond to requests for comment.
Muneef Traish, an Al-Bireh city council member who has US citizenship, has led a legal campaign for years on behalf of the community seeking the return of the confiscated lands. He said the settlers seized a total of 1,000 dunams (250 acres), 400 of which are being used by the winery.
Last November, the European Court of Justice ruled that European countries must label products originating in the settlements. The decision came after the Psagot winery, which produces 600,000 bottles a year and exports 70 percent of them, challenged an earlier ruling.
Israel lashed out at the decision to make the labels mandatory, saying it was unfair, discriminatory and would embolden the Palestinian-led boycott movement against Israel.
A week after the ruling, Pompeo announced the US no longer considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank to be a violation of international law, reversing four decades of American policy.
To express its gratitude, Psagot released a new wine called “Pompeo” – a blend of cabernet sauvignon, syrah and merlot.
“The US administration’s message is extremely important and strengthens our ongoing fight against the boycott and hypocrisy campaign,” Berg, the CEO of the winery, said at the time. “We will continue this just and moral struggle.”
A different struggle is under way in Al-Bireh, where city councilman Traish and other residents plan to protest Pompeo’s visit to the encroaching settlement.
“We want to say to Pompeo that instead of asking Israel to return the land to American citizens, you are here to celebrate the occupation,” he said.