Every year, in late August, Palestinians begin celebrating the grape harvest, a quintessential part of Palestinian life and heritage.
Grape vines can be found on nearly every street in Palestine — on apartment balconies in cramped refugee camps, to sprawling fields and courtyards in cities and villages.
For farmers, a years worth of intensive labor has led up to this moment, when they cut the grapes off the vines and take their goods to markets and street carts. For most, the profits made off of a year’s harvest will support their entire family financially until the next year.
This year’s harvest, for many farmers across the occupied West Bank, is bittersweet, marred by the violence of months past.
Between the months of May and July 7, according to documentation from NGO B’Tselem, more than 2,000 grape vines were cut down, directly affecting dozens of farmers and hundreds of their family members, amounting to material damages in the hundreds of thousands of shekels.
While settler attacks on Palestinian farmers is nothing new, this years marked a significant uptick in violence, drawing the attention of rights groups, and Israeli and Palestinian media alike.
In addition to direct attacks on grapevines, and other crops, in several incidents, several Palestinians were assaulted while tending to their land.
Though attacks on grapevines have seemingly quieted down since July, the violence against Palestinian farmers and their crops have remained steady, with settlers setting their sights now on olive trees ahead of the olive harvest which begins in October.
A lifetime of work lost
For many farmers, the vines to which they tend had been tended by their fathers and grandfathers. The grapes are more than just a fruit to enjoy or a means to sustain families economically, but a skill, and love for the craft passed down generation by generation.
The story of the family of Ameen Issa, 74, and their grapevines is no different.
Within seconds of arriving to Issa’s home, the deteriorating walls plastered with photos of his eight children, she sets a plate of freshly picked grapes from their vineyard on the table.
“Eat the grapes, eat,” she insists, over and over again, a look of pride on her face. The grapes that she so graciously offers to her guests are the product of years of her husband and nephews’ work. They are also some of the only grapes that the family has left.
On July 7th, after a few days of not tending to his crops, Ameena’s husband Hassan went to check on his land just off of Route 60, some five kilometers away from his home in the al-Khader village, in the southern occupied West Bank district of Bethlehem.
Expecting to find his grapes slowly beginning to ripen, he instead found them dead, beginning to dry up.
Khader Issa, 46, Hassan’s nephew, recounted to Mondoweiss what happened that day.
“My uncle called me and said come quickly, the grapes are dry the grapes are dry!”
“My brothers and I went to the land and found my cousin Omar with his father, my uncle, who was on the ground crying next to the trees, which had been cut near the roots,” Khader said.
“He couldn’t bear to even look at the trees. They were his whole life; he spent years taking care of them and loving them, and then they were gone.”
“It was like losing a child, like there is a death in the family. We took care of these grapes, cultivating them, giving them water, and caring for them, just as we do our children,” Ameena said.
The family believes the trees, 168 of them, were cut down by settlers from the Israeli settlement of Elazar, which was built just opposite of his plot of land, which measures around half of a hectare.
“One of my uncle’s friends called the DCO,” Khader said, referring to Israeli Civil Administration authorities, who are responsible for enforcing the government’s policies in the occupied territory.
“When they arrived, with the police, they started to take photos of the damage and told us to go file a report in the Beitar Illit settlement police station.” Almost two months later, Khader told Mondoweiss that Israeli police had made no arrests in connection to the attack.
“These trees that were cut down, they were new. We had planted them three years ago, and this was the first year that we were planning on harvesting the grapes and selling them,” Ameena said. “And now there are only a few trees left, not enough grapes to sell”
Khader estimated the material damages amounted to some 100,000 shekels. “It’s a lot of money, but the emotional damage, it is far worse.”
He added that Israeli authorities offered the family material compensation for slashed trees, but they refused.
According to him, they were asked to sign documents, all in Hebrew, saying that the family have accepted compensation for damage to the land.
“We didn’t want to sign the papers because you never know, they can use it in the future to say that we sold the land and then take it away from us,” Khader said.
Becoming a statistic
In B’Tselem documentation of settler attacks on Palestinian agriculture between May and July, the group reported at least 440,000 shekels ($123,200) in damages in five out of the 10 cases recorded, excluding the case of Hassan Issa.
The attacks took place across the occupied West Bank, from the southern Hebron-area town of Yatta, to the northern West Bank district of Nablus.
In several cases of settler attacks documented by local Palestinian and Israeli media, Hebrew graffiti was found on the site of the attack saying “we will reach every place” and “enough of the agricultural terrorism,” a phrase used by Israeli settlers to describe attacks on their crops allegedly carried out by Palestinians.
Though settler attacks on Palestinian property, including agriculture, have long been a part of life in the occupied territory, B’Tselem noted the increase in attacks over the past few months as “unusual.
In April of this year, The Shin Bet, Israel’s internal intelligence agency, said that there were 13 attacks in the first four months of the year – more than in the whole of 2017, when there were eight, according to the agency.
Despite widespread documentation of attacks, Israeli authorities rarely arrest or prosecute the settlers responsible.
According to Israeli rights group Yesh Din, Israeli authorities in the past three years served indictments in only 8.2 percent of cases of Israeli settlers committing anti-Palestinian crimes in the occupied West Bank.
“The police makes no substantial effort to investigate the incidents, nor takes measures to prevent them or stop them in real time,” B’Tselem said in their report.
“Israel benefits from the repercussions, as settler violence has gradually dispossessed Palestinians of more and more areas in the West Bank, paving the way for a state takeover of land and resources.”
While the Issa family has suffered the same fate as hundreds of other Palestinian farmers and their families, with, to their knowledge, no action being taken against the settlers responsible for the attack on their land, they say they refuse to become another statistic.
“This was devastating for our family,” Ameera told Mondoweiss, as she washed and plated more grapes. “But we have been here for hundreds of years, and we will stay. My children and their children. Nothing can make us leave our land.”
“Even if they were to offer us a million shekels, we would never give even a handful of soil to the Israelis. Never.”