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Grape Expectations

Uzi Jona (right) with a Palestinian worker at the Amatzia Vineyards
Story and photos by Frank Mecklenburg

Gush Katif was a beautiful block of 17 Jewish communities in southern Gaza. It was so sad when in August 2005, the Israeli army carried out the Cabinet's decision to forcibly remove the 8,600 residents of Gush Katif from their homes, synagogues, businesses, and farms. Their communities were demolished as part of Israel's unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip. Although this was an emotional shock, the people who lived there did not give up. My recent visit with Gush Katif folks living in Karmel Katif illustrates the character of these people and is an example of not giving up. 

The village of Karmei Katif (The Vineyards of Katif) was established in 2016 by sixty residents of the Gush Katif settlement who had left the Gaza Strip as a result of being evicted by the government in 2005. Between the disengagement and the building of the new village, the founders lived in the moshav of Amatzia directly to the south of Karmei Katif. The village was built on the ruins of the Arab village of al-Dawayima , which was depopulated during the 1948 Arab–Israeli War . Amatzia, a moshav in south-central Israel located 8km southeast of Lachish, falls under the jurisdiction of Lachish Regional Council. The population is a mix of religious and secular Israelis, and had 465 residents in 2017. 

I became interested in visiting the communities of Amatzia and Karmei Katif when I met Uzi Jona, who was visiting his brother, Kobi, a rabbi in Arad. He told me about his life and the community where he lives and that he and his brother Kobi were born and raised in Beer Sheva. He studied at the yeshiva in Gush Katif in Gaza during 1999 and 2000 and in 2000 he married a friend he had met in high school. They made Gush Katif their home, and she gave birth to their first son while he served in the army from 2001-2004. Fortunately, he was stationed in Gaza and was able to spend most Shabbats at home. They really enjoyed living in Gush Katif until Ariel Sharon ordered the eviction of Jews from Gaza in 2005. After being evicted from Gaza, he and his family lived four years in Petach Tikva with others from Gush Katif before moving to Moshav Amatzia. At that time Amatzia was not doing well as most of the young people were choosing to live and work away from the moshav. After 60 Gush Katif people came to live in Amatzia, the moshav was renewed because the families brought new life to it. They lived there in caravans while waiting for Karmei Katif to be built. When they arrived in Amatzia, there were 13 families, but now, in both Amatzia and Karmei Katif there are 150 families or about 2,000 people living there. 

Early in the morning, I drove from Arad north on highway 358 that runs very close to the border of the disputed area of the West Bank, better known as Judea and Samaria, the Bible belt of Israel. I used an app on my phone to reach Moshav Amatzia, where I was to meet my contact, Uzi Jona, who is one of the managers of the vineyards. The only problem with the app is that it never told me that I had arrived at my destination. I was directed off the main highway to another paved road and immediately was instructed to turn right on another small paved road. When I came to an iron gate across the road, a car pulled up behind me. I assumed that he would have a way to open the gate, but nothing happened. Just then a large truck pulled up on the opposite side of the gate and I thought that surely now it would open, but nothing happened. I guessed that the fence would open automatically at 8am and sure enough it did. Once I was past the gate I did not realize that I was already in the moshav so I followed a car and came to another gate which opened and I drove through behind the other car. I stopped and asked a young woman who was hitch hiking at the bus stop where Moshav Amatzia was located. She told me to turn around and go back. I got back through the gate and met Uzi on the other side. 

Ten years ago, when Uzi's partner arrived and wanted to renew the depleted old vineyards, he had all the old vineyards removed and replaced with new vineyards that are now producing grapes. Uzi arrived eight years ago and became a partner in the grape venture. Although they have other work that can be done from their homes or by commuting to a nearby city, they teamed together to renew the vineyards. They are harvesting tons of table grapes sold in the Supersol stores. 

I followed Uzi down a dirt road a short distance to the vineyards. He showed me a new vineyard that is two years old and that in eight more years will be ready for harvest. Those young plants are growing inside used milk cartons at the base of the plant to protect it from cats clawing and dogs urinating on them. 

Frank Mecklenberg with green table grapes at Amatzia

I was amazed to see rows and rows of grape-bearing vineyards. They have six acres of green table grape vineyards. Each 11 square feet of land produces about 4 tons of grapes. The grapes looked so ripe and with few flaws. He showed me how liquid is placed on the vine to protect the grapes from horseflies. They also know how to protect the grapes from worms that can ruin the crop. Uzi said that grapes are like honey and so the flies and worms are attracted to them. Pruning and fertilizing is carried out all during the year for the harvest that lasts for two weeks. Uzi shared about how he loves living in the quiet moshav compared to living in a large, noisy city and that the two weeks of harvesting is great fun for him. I was able to witness the harvesting and learn about the process.

They hire Arab workers to harvest the grapes. Some are from Bedouin communities near Arad and four Palestinian men are from Hebron. After the Palestinian workers from Hebron are cleared by the Israeli police at the checkpoint, they are picked up by taxi at 4:30am in order to arrive in Amatzia to start the grape harvesting at 5am. The harvest day ends at 1pm or when they have harvested the amount of grapes that the stores have requested for that day. Uzi phones the store in the afternoon before to find out what quantity should be harvested the next day. The amount requested for the day I was there was three and half tons of grapes, which equals 315 large green trays filled with grapes. The workers are trained to pick the grapes, cut off any that are not fit for market, and place quality grapes in small plastic containers that are placed in green trays stacked in various locations in the rows of vineyards.

Near the end of the harvesting for the day, young people from the moshav go down each row and carry all the green trays of grapes and stack them at the end of each row. This provides work for the young students during the summer vacation. After all the green trays have been stacked, a trailer collects the trays to have them placed in a large container in the moshav where a Supersol truck takes them to their food center in Tel Aviv.

They also have vineyards with purple table grapes that are harvested for an entire month. There are many other vineyards in the area. When it was time for the harvesters to have a coffee break, they invited me to drink tea with them. I never dreamed that I would be drinking tea with Palestinians. It was interesting talking with them through an interpreter, Uzi himself, who learned Arabic while serving in the army in Gaza. When he told them that I was from America, one of them said he wanted to go to America. When I asked him why, he said, "I want to meet President Trump". We all had a good laugh about that. He went on to say that he thinks the problem is that Netanyahu, Trump, and Mahmoud Abbas have all the money and do not help the people; that the leaders do lots of talking, but do nothing; that the Palestinians and the Israelis are the same people and can live together in peace. He said that his oldest son is an engineer in Dubai and another son is a teacher in Hebron. The workers appreciate being able to work in the vineyards because they earn more money than they can in the West Bank.

I learned a lot and really enjoyed the experience. I said goodbye to Uzi and departed with a plastic container of sweet table grapes. On the way back to Arad I stopped to take photos of the fence that runs along the 1967 line that separates the undisputed part of Israel from the disputed Judea. 

The wall between Israel and Judea
 

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Monday, 21 September 2020

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