The expected tour of a winery in the occupied West Bank by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week marks the first time a top American diplomat has visited an illegal Israeli settlement.

Partly built on land that Palestinians say was stolen from local residents, Psagot Winery is part of an extensive network of Israeli settlements in the West Bank that are illegal under international law and a major obstacle to peace negotiations.

The winery in Jabal al-Tawil, just outside the city of Ramallah in the West Bank, is a focal point of Israel’s efforts to promote tourism in the occupied territory and a strong symbol of the fight against campaigns to boycott or label products from the settlements.

Pompeo’s expected visit, reported but not officially confirmed by the Israeli media, would mark an astonishing departure from his predecessors, who often criticized settlement building.

US President Donald Trump has unprecedented support for Israel and has already broken with his predecessors by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and rejecting the decades-old US position that settlements are incompatible with international law. The government has also recognized the annexation by Israel of the occupied Golan Heights, which were captured from Syria in the 1967 war, where Pompeo could also pay a visit.

Burnish Pompeo credentials

Trump’s so-called Middle East Plan, which predominantly favored Israel and was immediately rejected by the Palestinians, would have enabled Israel to annex almost a third of the West Bank, including all of its settlements.

During Trump’s tenure, Israel approved thousands of new settlement houses, including in highly contested areas.

The visit to the winery, which last year released a red wine named after the secretary, would be another gift to Israel in the final weeks of Trump’s presidency, even if neither Trump nor Pompeo recognized President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.

The visit could also polish Pompeo’s references to Protestant 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 stores, are a major investor in the winery.

An Associated Press investigation last year found that the family had donated at least $ 5.6 million to settler groups in the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem over the past decade. Since 2000, they have donated at least $ 1.7 million to pro-Israel politicians in the U.S., both Democrats and Republicans, including Trump.

Israeli forces beat up an elderly Palestinian during a protest against a planned Jewish settlement [File: Reuters]

“Taken by Strangers”

In the 1967 war, Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas that the Palestinian leadership wants for their future independent state. Since then, around 130 settlements and dozens of smaller illegal outposts have been set up, from mobile homes on remote hills to fully developed cities.

More than 460,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank and more than 220,000 live in East Jerusalem.

The Palestinians say the settlements make it almost impossible to create a viable state – which was one of the main goals of the settlers who founded them. Much of Jerusalem is already cordoned off from the West Bank by a series of checkpoints and a separation wall erected by Israel.

The Palestinians say that many of the settlements, including Psagot and its winery, were built on land stolen from private Palestinian owners. Residents of the nearby city of Al-Bireh – many of whom are American citizens – say the settlement devoured their land after Israel erected 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 that they own land on which some of the vineyards and a winery were built.

“Imagine your own land, the property that you lived on and that your ancestors lived on, is being taken by strangers like this by force and you cannot touch it,” said Kainat.

Yaakov Berg, the manager of the winery, did not respond to requests for comment.

“Hypocrisy Campaign”

Muneef Traish, a US citizen on Al-Bireh city council, has been running a legal campaign on behalf of the community for years to seek the return of the confiscated land. He said the settlers had confiscated a total of 1,000 dunams (250 acres), of which 400 are 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 Psagot Winery, which produces 600,000 bottles a year and exports 70 percent of them, challenged an earlier decision.

Israel opened the decision to make the labels mandatory, saying it was unfair, discriminatory and would encourage the Palestinian-led boycott movement against Israel.

A week after the verdict, Pompeo announced that the US is no longer viewing Israeli settlements in the West Bank as a violation of international law and is reversing four decades of American policy.

To express his gratitude, Psagot launched a new wine called “Pompeo” – a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot.

“The US government’s message is extremely important and strengthens our ongoing fight against the boycott and hypocrisy campaign,” said Berg, then CEO of the winery. “We will continue this just and moral struggle.”

Another battle is ongoing in Al-Bireh, with Councilor Traish and other residents protesting Pompeo’s visit to the overarching settlement.

“We want to tell Pompeo that you are here to celebrate the occupation instead of asking Israel to return the land to American citizens,” he said.

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