Something's Rotten at This Settlement Winery – and We Don't Mean the Grapes

The land is owned by Palestinians, with documents to prove it – but is now the site of a Jewish winery. After the EU ruling that settlement products must be marked as such, Europeans will know the origin of Psagot's wines

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The home of Yaakov Berg, Psagot winery’s CEO.
The home of Yaakov Berg, Psagot winery’s CEO. Credit: Alex Levac

It looks like a scene from Tuscany. A vintage-model sports car and a black SUV are parked in front of a mansion with a stone facade and green roof, nestled among vineyards. The water in the swimming pool glitters in the blazing light. The leaves on the rows of grape vines – planted in exemplary order, and propped up by iron poles – are now brown.

The atmosphere is tranquil atmosphere: A bird chirps, there’s an aura of beauty. But the sight is actually one of the ugliest and repellent sights imaginable. The house, the vineyard, the pool, the high-end cars and the porch with the scenic view – all of this is situated on private property plundered from its owners. And we are not in Tuscany; we are in a crime neighborhood.

This is the estate of Yaakov Berg, CEO of the Psagot winery, in the central West Bank. Berg’s house stands on section 233 of bloc No. 17. This property belongs to two sisters, Amal and Keinat Quran and their cousin, Karima – but they don’t have any access to it. The grapes are planted on sections 219-220, which is owned by Huria Quran, another relative. That petite, elderly woman is also unable to get to her property.

It’s hard to think of fouler odor than the one that emanates from Psagot winery. Or of more obnoxious moral and legal rot than that prevailing in the settlement of the same name. No decision of the U.S. administration will eliminate that ugly reality.

The European Court of Justice last week ruled that the European Union will henceforth require that the locale in which this wine is made be noted on its label, together with every other product of the settlements, after the winery asked a French court to rescind that requirement. After the ruling, CEO Berg declared, according to the daily Maariv, that he felt “like a Jew with a yellow patch.” No less. Sounding like the child who murdered his parents and asked the court for mercy because he was an orphan, he broke yet another unbelievable record of settler brazenness.

A few of the dispossessed landowners, about a dozen elderly men and women, are sitting in the municipal offices of the neighboring city of El Bireh, glumly perusing an aerial photograph of their lands and what remains of them. Several are holding their deeds of ownership, duly authorized by the Israeli military government’s Civil Administration. And yet from the lofty heights of the estate that stands on land seized by the CEO and his cohorts, the settler Berg talks about a “yellow patch.”

Can there be a more foul wine than that produced by Psagot Winery? Is there anything more justified than labeling it and setting it apart from wines that are not produced in the territories? And what could be more moral and noble than to boycott it altogether?

The Psagot Winery vineyard. Credit: Alex Levac

This is the new Migron, the settlement originally built on private Palestinian land nearby, which was dismantled in 2012 and rebuilt here, near the winery. The winery – founded by the present CEO’s father, Meir Berg, an immigrant from the Soviet Union – moved here in 2009 in order to expand its operations and manufacture some 400,000 bottles of wine a year, according to its advertisements.

A soldier mans the settlement’s entry gate. This is apparently the job of a young lieutenant in the Israel Defense Forces: to raise and lower a barrier, outside a winery. A guard dog at the end of a long metal leash barks furiously in the yard of the empty visitors center where, according to the winery website, joyful family events, conferences and meetings, including meals featuring Argentine asado are available – “in the heart of the country.”

Palestinian construction workers are busy building more and more villas in this new Migron. The Hemo, Diamant, Weinberg and Halevy families are delighted to live here. Scrawled on the bus stop at the exit is the slogan “Rabbi Meir Kahane was right.”

Psagot, the settlement, is a few minutes away. An illegal road that settlers built with the aid of the authorities leads to it from Migron. Since 2003, Psagot has been encompassed by an electrified fence that reaches up to the road. Under the cover of the fence, this rogue settlement expanded and seized another 550 dunams (138 acres) of private land from its Palestinian owners. The plundered land includes 80 dunams seized by Yaakov Berg and the Psagot winery, where the vineyard was planted. This is the latter-day equivalent of Naboth’s vineyard, and the dispossession continues.

This week, Dror Etkes, the knowledgeable researcher of settlements from the NGO Kerem Navot (proper disclosure: photographer Alex Levac is a member of the organization’s executive board), noticed new metal stakes in the ground. They are apparently intended for more vines and the takeover of even more land.

The entrance to the ever-growing Psagot settlement tells the whole story: remnants of ruined agricultural terraces and shriveled-up fruit orchards are visible along the sides of its fenced-off access road. The Palestinian farming that existed here is a thing of the past.

Beyond Berg’s house is Psagot’s cemetery and then another illegal outpost of trailer homes, Mitzpe Ha’ai. An inscription on the sign at the entrance to the small, neglected playground in Psagot states: “Name of property owner: Binyamin Regional Council.” Another mockery of the law.

The Psagot winery visitor center.Credit: Alex Levac

Established in 1979 to compensate settlers for the withdrawal from Sinai required of Israel in the peace treaty with Egypt, one of the aims of Psagot was to stifle neighboring El Bireh. In 1967, the latter had a population of 8,000 spread over an area of 12,000 dunams (3,000 acres). Today its population is 82,000 – but its area has shrunk to about 10,500 dunams. At one spot, only 30 meters separate the crowded Palestinian city from the settler homes.

Waiting for us in the El Bireh municipality’s modern conference hall is city council member Muneif Treish along with about a dozen other women and men, residents, all of them elderly; the oldest is the 89-year-old Odeh Hama’il. They are the owners of the land on which Psagot stands. Treish, who speaks fluent Hebrew and English, spreads a large, up-to-date aerial photograph of Psagot on the table. Unlike other places, the land registry records kept here are accurate.

Etkes relates that Psagot was originally situated on a hilltop (psagot means peaks or summits in Hebrew) at a site that Israel had classified as state land. Treish explains that the land was purchased from its owners in 1965 by the city government of East Jerusalem, then under Jordanian control, for the construction of a summer resort for wealthy vacationers from Kuwait. The 1967 war, in which East Jerusalem came under Israeli control, torpedoed that plan, however, and thereafter the land became “the territories of [Jerusalem Mayor] Teddy Kollek,” in Treish’s words – or “state territory,” in Israeli settlement parlance.

Over the years, Etkes notes, the original 140 dunams allocated to Psagot expanded to 655 dunams. Etkes has maps on his computer that show the takeover stage by stage – a brief history of dispossession – all of it, of course, under the auspices of the Israeli authorities, along with the addition of mobile homes, security barriers and so on. Land that had been part of the master plan of El Bireh became the Psagot settlement.

“The mobile homes were installed in good faith,” says Treish, quoting from a letter he once received from the legal adviser of the Civil Administration, who also wrote, “we will remove them at the earliest possible date.” Wait for it.

The sight of the old folks in the council hall is heartrending. Almost all of them are in traditional dress – their heads covered with kerchiefs and kaffiyehs. They are convinced that the Israeli journalist and photographer who have come in Etkes’ company can get their land restored to them. In their hearts they have never given it up.

As Treish put it, “As long as we are here, we will never stop struggling.”

SOme of the dispossessed Palestinian landowners, at the municipal offices of the neighboring city of El Bireh.Credit: Alex Levac

The original landowners numbered some 100, and together with their descendants they have now reached several thousand. These were small plots of land, fruit orchards, olive groves, property accumulated over a number of generations.

Thaisir Hama’il has not been on his land since 1992. Mustafa Samarin relates that after Psagot’s initial establishment, he was still able to get to his property, but then began to be chased off: first under threat of weapon fire and dogs, and finally the security fence, which blocked them off completely. A few members of the group of landowners go to the (Israeli) Civil Administration every year and obtain new official confirmation of their ownership of the property, properly stamped and signed. In their naivete, they think this gives them some sort of rights to their lost land.

This week Etkes tweeted, “The owners of the Psagot winery owe its success to several factors: to the IDF, which built the fence around Psagot; to the Civil Administration, which did not evict them; to the police, who did not place them on trial; to the billionaire Falic brothers [from Miami, Florida] who came in as partners in the winery; and to the Israel Water Authority, which allocated them tens of millions of cubic liters of water for irrigation.”

Last July 1, journalists Uri Blau and Josef Federman published an investigative report for the Associated Press about the Falic Brothers’ involvement in the settlement enterprise, including their support of extreme and violent right-wing elements, and partial ownership of the Psagot winery. On July 6, the British newspaper Independent also ran a report about the family, which owns a large network of duty-free stores in the United States. That article focused on the acquisition of control in the winery, in which they invested more than a million dollars, through a company they established in Panama. They purchased a little more than half the shares in the winery and became its majority shareholders.

Do the women from the Quran family know what has sprung up on their land – the winery, the vineyards, the estate? All they know is what they hear from Dror Etkes.

Following the EU’s labeling decision last week, Berg told Haaretz, “As Jews and Israelis, we see our work as a great mission. We’ve acted as Israelis who are living in a community established with the approval of [the Israeli] government and who only seek to manufacture and export wine of great quality that has a reputation all over the world.”

Let’s raise a toast to this thrilling Zionist effort. Now, at least, Europeans will know the origin of the “wine of great quality” from Psagot.

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