Negev wine farmers claim battle over land is sour grapes

Negev wine farmers claim battle over land is sour grapes

BEERSHEBA, Israel — Moshe Zohar’s hands are rough and callused, his face lined with the dust of the desert he farms half an hour outside this southern Israeli city.

Eleven years ago Zohar, his wife, Hilda, and their three children settled on this harsh land to build Nahal Boker Vineyards, one of the first eco-tourism farms on the newly established Negev wine route.

They came under a plan initiated in the mid-1990s by the Ramat HaNegev Regional Council, Israel’s Agriculture Ministry and the Israel Lands Authority under which the Zohars and 23 other couples were given land to farm along an ancient trading route, part of a national initiative to settle the Negev. They were told to plant olive trees, wine grapes and other native crops, to raise goats and make cheese. They were given access to the country’s water and power supplies, as long as they kept their doors open for tourism.

“There was a vineyard here 1,500 to 2,000 years ago,” said Zohar, noting the connection he felt to Israel’s ancient history when he planted his own wine grapes. “Local archeological ruins show huge wine vats our ancestors used for aging.”

But now Zohar and the other wine route farmers face eviction from the very agencies that encouraged them to settle this land.

The farmers attribute the about-face to the value they have created through their farms: Now that their little pieces of desert are blooming, rich folks from elsewhere want to swoop in and claim it for themselves.

Opponents of the farmers are relying on a law that says citizens are permitted to receive land without going through the usual public tender process only if the land is used for industry, agriculture or tourism — but not for housing. The law, which effectively bars the farmers from living on the land, apparently was ignored when the wine route was established to encourage Jewish settlement of the Negev.

Five years ago, when the discrepancy was brought to light, the Israel Lands Authority began issuing eviction notices so the farms could be put up for sale. Seven farms, including the Zohars’, have received eviction notices.

The Agriculture Ministry referred the matter to the Housing Ministry, which declined an interview on the subject with JTA.

“I put a lot of money into this, and I built it myself,” Zohar said. “If I’d known this would happen, I never would have come.”

The wine route farmers are fighting their eviction. They won their first victory July 12 when the Knesset enacted a new law permitting farmers who have contracts with the lands authority and lived on their land for more than three years to apply for permanent residency and recognition of their eco-tourism project.

Their applications for permanent residency will be considered by the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee on a case-by-case basis beginning in October, when the appropriate ministerial committee is created.

“The new Knesset law does not give carte blanche,” said a spokesman for the Ramat Hanegev Regional Council who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It does not say everyone who is already there may stay.”

The farmers also have a petition pending in Israel’s Supreme Court requesting permission for all of them to remain on their land.

“The state sent those people there,” said Knesset member Israel Hasson, one of the co-sponsors of the bill that passed last month. “Four Israeli governments thought this method of settling the Negev was important, but the law didn’t allow them to live on their land. I thought such a situation should not exist.”

When the original offer to farm here went out more than a decade ago, few Israelis seemed interested in moving to the Negev to turn dusty 10- to 15-acre desert sites into blooming vineyards. But when the farms flourished, complaints emerged: Why did they get this land for free? Why didn’t they have to go through normal procedures?

The lands authority has brought a lawsuit in the Beersheba Magistrate Court to enforce the evictions of the seven farms that have received notices. The farmers have asked for a stay pending the outcome of the Supreme Court case.

The farmers and their allies say it’s a case of sour grapes.

“From a tourism point of view, these farms have made a huge contribution to the Negev,” said Eran Doron of the Ramat HaNegev Regional Council. “Until they were established, visitors to the Negev came to hike or take jeep rides; they did not stay overnight or eat. Since the farms have opened restaurants and B&Bs, more people come to the Negev for good wine, good cheese and olive oil.”

As the regional council’s former head of tourism development, Doron has brought thousands of visitors to the wine route farms. Each year, 500 to 600 from Colorado come through a project of the Jewish federations of Boulder, Denver and Aspen.

Back at Nahal Boker Vineyards, Zohar walks slowly through his pomegranate grove, fingering the fruit to see how it’s ripening.

Upon moving to the Negev, Zohar planted five acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes, which he makes into wine that he sells from a wooden chalet and tasting room. In 2007 he planted organic pomegranate and olive trees using experimental seeds as part of a Ben-Gurion University research project.

In line with the wine route’s eco-tourism focus, he also built four guest cottages and a hot tub, where visitors from farther north come to relax under the desert skies.

This month he will bring his first pomegranates to market. Zohar says he hopes he’ll be able to do the same next year.

“They said for years that we need to develop the Negev, and we can develop the Negev,” he said. “They just have to let us do it.”