Israel’s Wall Construction destroys 120-year old monastery, winery

On terraced fields under the summer sun and the watchful eyes of a small group of Italian priests, weather-beaten workers tend vines ready for transformation into a light Chardonnay, a fruity Cabernet Sauvignon and a punchy Merlot.

The bucolic scene appears lifted straight from the landscape of Tuscany or Umbria. But this is the West Bank, and a few hundred yards beyond these unique vines loom military watchtowers, checkpoints and the 18ft concrete wall of Israel’s security barrier.
     

The monastery at Cremisan

The vineyard workers are Palestinian, from the town of Beit Jala, near Bethlehem, and the Italian priests are residents of the Salesian monastery of Cremisan there. Together they have been making wine since 1885, in what is now the West Bank’s only winery.

Not, fear Palestinians, for much longer. Last week Israel began work to extend its security barrier here, on a route that will cut off Cremisan – and its winery – from Beit Jala and the rest of the West Bank.

On fields near the vines, Samia Zeit, from Beit Jala municipality, pointed out ancient olive trees with branches cut off, ready for uprooting by Israeli contractors flanked by soldiers.

"Hundreds have been cut so far so they can build the ‘barrier’ on our land," she said.

Israel says that the "security barrier" is solely a tool to keep out suicide bombers. But with Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, promising that probably it will mark a future border for Israel, Palestinians are convinced that West Bank lands that fall behind it will be annexed.

"I know that this land was Palestinian," said Fr Luciano Nordera, 78. "But we will be on the Israeli side."

The route of the wall is not governed solely by security concerns. Supreme court judges ruled recently that military experts hid evidence from them in a hearing to determine the barrier’s route in the West Bank.

They told the judges the wall near the Israeli settlement of Tzufin would serve an essential security purpose as an "observation point". But they now admit the barrier’s route there was designed not principally for security, but to allow for Tzufin’s expansion.

That enraged the judges, who issued a stern reprimand to the state and ordered relevant parts of the barrier to be torn down.

Near Cremisan, the wall is designed to shield the Israeli settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo – home to almost 30,000 civilians living on occupied land.

"Construction is stop, start, stop, start," said Samia Zeit. But she fears that with the eyes of the world focused on the Gaza strip, Israel will push to complete its wall in Beit Jala – with the Cabernets, Merlots and Chardonnays lost for ever.

"I have been working on these olive trees and on these vines, all my life," said 70-year-old Naim Zidane, one of the 25 Palestinian workers at Cremisan. "It’s not a problem to get to the monastery now. But after the wall is built, I might as well say goodbye."

*this article was reprinted from the British newspaper ‘The Telegraph’

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