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Two men pick grapes from large vine clusters on a low brick wall.
Jamil Sarras (left) and his worker Abu Muhammed reach into a vine to pick jandali grapes to make malban.

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In the West Bank, Palestinians Preserve Grapes and Tradition

Grapes are critical to culinary traditions and economic stability for many Palestinians, but during the Israel-Hamas war, farmers in the occupied West Bank struggle to keep their land and themselves safe

Jamil Sarras, a Palestinian viticulturist, is typically put-together and well-spoken by 6 a.m. I met him early one morning in September to pick grapes before the heat set in. He has a day job as a medical lab specialist at a hospital in Bethlehem, but before clocking in for work, he manages the Sarras Family Vineyard 40 minutes away in the hills near Hebron, known as Al-Khalil in Arabic, a city in the occupied West Bank. Starting in late August each year, the family and staff pick grapes for a month or two, before Sarras sells their haul to Palestinian wineries and arak distillers.

Grapes, after olives, are the second-most cultivated fruit crop in Palestine, where there are three different grape harvests. The first is in early spring, when farmers pick the leaves. Stuffed for waraq dawali, the leaves sell for five times the price of grapes themselves. A couple months later, unripe grapes, still hard and green, are picked to make hosrum, a sour condiment used in Palestinian cooking to give a pungent, sour taste to dishes.

In late summer, the grapes themselves are finally picked. In addition to being eaten raw as a dessert, they are also used to make wine, arak, vinegar, and raisins, and other treats like dibs, a wintertime grape molasses that’s mixed with tahini and scooped up with bread for what Palestinian food writer Reem Kassis describes as the “Middle Eastern version of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich” in her cookbook The Palestinian Table.

With just a few clusters left to pick, Sarras took me to a vantage point so I could see the whole property. The view is quite different from European and American vineyards. Instead of trellises, Palestinian grape growers plant vines around metal stakes stuck deep into the ground. The plants form thick stems around the stakes and leafy canopies grow over the fruit. This actually allows the farmers to control ripening: If demand is high, the farmer can cut back the canopy, exposing the grapes to the sun and causing them to ripen faster.

Another sight not common on European vineyards, white walls of an Israeli settlement hover over Sarras’s property from a nearby hill. The Sarras vineyard is in a region known by Israel as Gush Etzion, one of a number of areas where the Israeli government has explicitly helped and implicitly allowed the incursion of Israeli settlers. Israeli settlements are illegal under international law, and the U.N. describes the Etzion settlement bloc as “one of the main settlement areas in the West Bank.” In 2020, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy estimated that Gush Etzion was home to around 100,000 settlers, and that number has grown since.

White walls are just visible above rows of grape vines.
The view from Sarras Family Vineyard, including the white walls of an Israeli settlement (center).

As settlers have expanded, they’ve increasingly come into violent conflict with nearby Palestinians; according to the U.N., violence by settlers against Palestinians spiked throughout the first half of 2023, resulting in casualties, property damage, and displacement. To get to his vineyard, Sarras has to pass through an intersection that was previously a hotbed of violence. The vineyard itself, set beneath the Gush Etzion settlement, has long seemed to exist in the shadow of a looming threat. In recent weeks, that abstract fear has become an existential threat for the family and the vineyard.

“We are locked down in our house,” Sarras told me on October 16. “Every single street that connects us with the outside world is closed as some kind of collective punishment.”

On October 7, Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, launched a surprise attack on Israel, killing more than 1,400 people, most of whom were civilians, and taking hundreds of hostages. In response, Israel declared war against Hamas, began a weeks-long aerial bombardment of Gaza that has claimed the lives of 8,000 Palestinians according to the Gaza Health Ministry, and tightened the borders around the territory, making it difficult for humanitarian aid to reach people within and for news to make it out. On October 27, the Israel Defense Force expanded its ground assault into Gaza, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu predicted a “long and difficult” war to come. Today, Israeli troops attacked Gaza City.

Increased violence has spread to the West Bank as well, leading to fears that the fighting centered on Gaza will spread into a wider regional conflict. Clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinians in the West Bank, combined with violence by armed settlers, has resulted in the most deadly weeks for West Bank Palestinians in 15 years. Though the area is controlled by the Palestinian Authority, not Hamas, Israeli forces have launched raids and an airstrike (the latter is historically rare for the West Bank) targeting militants from Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another militant group. Israeli forces have also severely restricted travel within the West Bank, making it difficult for aid workers, or anyone, to move freely.

After some back and forth, Israeli forces eventually agreed to allow Sarras to visit his farm to feed his animals, provided he doesn’t go down into the vineyard, which he suspects is “because they don’t want anybody anywhere near the settlements.”

Sarras and his family have been cultivating their land for generations. The area around Gush Etzion — which Palestinians call Al-Shefa, which means a healing spa — is home to 85 percent of Palestine’s vineyards. It’s the most fertile land in the Palestinian territories, serving as the bread basket for Bethlehem and Hebron. Now Sarras has been left without access to his grapes, and there’s no clear path out of the spiraling escalation of conflict.

“What’s left of our grapes are still on the vines and will go bad very soon because we cannot get to our vineyard,” he said.

Like the rich soil Sarras showed me as we walked through the fields that September morning, it could all slip through his fingers.

Sarras was picking dabouki grapes the day I visited the vineyard in September. Before grapes were available in supermarkets all year round, Palestinians would look forward to dabouki, the first grapes of the season, for their slightly sweet, slightly sour taste, or fateer in Arabic, meaning not completely ripe.

The dabouki grape is no longer quite a strong selling point, Sarras said that day, “but it’s perfect for malban.” The traditional Palestinian dried fruit leather, preserved like a fruit roll-up, is made from grapes, nuts, and spices. It’s enjoyed as a snack, something sweet and healthy between meals.

During the Second Intifada, the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation in the early 2000s, the economy took a downturn, making it hard for Sarras to sell his production grapes. In response, he decided to make large batches of malban with the unsold grapes. The family found that customers loved it, and they’ve made malban ever since, attracting customers with their distinct use of nigella seeds from Hebron. The batch we were going to make together, he said, was already sold out from preorders.

A worker stands beside a large pot stirring a yellow substance with a long pole.
Abu Muhammad, an employee, stirs the malban to make sure the thick mixture doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot.

Products like malban and dibs are time-consuming and expensive to make, but in an ever-changing landscape of political conflict, they are also methods of preserving the Sarras family’s food traditions. At the same time, grapes, like other crops, are at the center of the area’s violent history.

Much of the conflict between settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank has centered on agriculture. The U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has noted that agricultural communities, especially herders, have been particularly vulnerable to attack. Palestinian farmers have experienced loss of land, destruction of their crops, and physical threats. On October 28, during a surge of attacks by settlers since Israel’s war with Hamas began, settlers killed a Palestinian farmer harvesting olives.

Palestinians have caused injuries and fatalities against settlers in the West Bank as well: The New York Times reports, via U.N. records, that an outbreak of violence in early 2022 resulted in casualties and injuries “roughly comparable” between Palestinians and settlers. But consequences have rarely been equal; as violence has risen over the last six years, especially during harvest seasons, rights groups have accused the Israeli military of failing to intervene during settler attacks and failing to punish Israeli perpetrators, even while prosecuting Palestinians.

“Settlers regularly burn groves of olives and grapes,” Kassis told me on August 21, adding that land that has been cultivated by Palestinians for generations “is overtaken illegally by settlers and [Palestinian] farmers are no longer allowed access [to their land].”

Farmers will likely lose more land if the Israeli government annexes the occupied territory. In 2019, Netanyahu vowed to annex sections of the West Bank; the plan gained steam after Israel received backing from the U.S. in Donald Trump’s 2020 peace plan and again when the Netanyahu government limited the power of the supreme court (the body that usually checks the executive branch) in July 2023. Following the declaration of war, it’s unclear if or how annexation would play out. Though the exact territory to be annexed could take several forms, according to Machsom Watch, a group of Israeli women who monitor human rights abuses in the West Bank, Israel will likely demand “to annex the Gush Etzion region in a permanent agreement with the Palestinians.” Even in the most restrained version of annexation, the settlement bloc would likely be engulfed by Israel.

Given the large concentration of Palestinian vineyards in the area, annexation would decimate the Palestinian grape industry, as well as downstream companies such as wineries, distilleries, vinegar producers, and raisin-makers.

“For agro-businesses like myself that depend on the grape as the main product for my project, I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Nader Muaddi, a Palestinian distiller at Arak Muaddi in Beit Jala, told me in August. Muaddi uses Sarras’s grapes to make arak, a traditional, anise-flavored spirit commonly found in the Levant. “I could try sourcing grapes from other areas like Jenin, but then the shipping will cost as much as the grapes themselves.”

Given the presence of right-wing settlers like Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir in high ministerial positions, it’s difficult to make plans for the future when annexation could completely redraw the map of the West Bank.

“It’s very unpredictable,” Muaddi said. “It’s not sustainable or stable at all.”

Most restaurants have remained closed since the most recent war between Israel and Hamas began, but Palestinian grapes had long been a critical component for both Palestinian and Israeli chefs in all sorts of dishes before October 7. Asaf Doktor, an Israeli chef with several hyperlocal restaurants in Tel Aviv — Dok, Ha’Achim, and Abie — preferred to source fruit from Palestinian farmers, including grapes.

At the flagship Dok — which temporary closed for regular business on October 8 and just re-opened for standard service yesterday — the chef had served a take on Palestinian musakhan; traditionally, roasted chicken and onion are served atop a taboon flatbread, but at Dok, quail replaced the chicken, house-made Khorasan wheat pasta was swapped in for the taboon, and a pasta sauce featured wine and plump raisins made by Philokalia, a skin-contact winery in Bethlehem. Doktor would also reach for Palestinian grape molasses to sweeten vinaigrettes or other sauces.

Colorful plates of hummus topped with pine nuts and pomegranate seeds, fattoush salad with pieces of broken pita, and two plates of grape leaves, with one in sauce.
Fattoush, hummus, and grape leaves served two ways at Kabakeh in Jaffa.
A plate of musakhan, with plump raisins set on long strands of pasta in sauce.
Asaf Doktor’s take on Palestinian musakhan.

“Dibs is one of my favorite molasses that we use. It is very old-school,” he told me in August. “Acid is also very important to our cuisine,” he added, “and we try to choose acid components according to the season.” Lemons are a winter fruit, so come summertime, Doktor’s restaurants usually switch to hosrum, the sour grape condiment. “Hosrum reacts better on proteins [like Doktor’s carpaccio and sashimi] because it doesn’t cure the meat or fish like lemon would.”

Habib Daoud, the chef and owner of two Palestinian restaurants in Israel serving Galilean cuisine — Kabakeh in Jaffa and Ezba in Rameh — cited the idea of baladi, common among Palestinian farmers, in explaining the quality of the agriculture.

“Baladi refers to a place, a smell, a method of cultivating crops — overall an attitude,” he said in September. For Daoud, this approach is characterized by a small plot of land next to the house of the fellahin (farmer), who can maintain a close connection to the land. Because output is small, people rely on their neighbors, sharing when they have extra and coming together for celebratory meals. It’s what gives Palestinian grapes, and Palestinian cuisine more broadly, its flavor, Daoud explained.

It’s also why chefs like Doktor and Dauod tended to buy produce from nearby Palestinian farms. There are echoes of baladi in the Slow Food movement, which promotes local agriculture, and the farming principle produces excellent local, seasonal ingredients.

“Through my visits to the markets in the West Bank,” Daoud said, “I notice the [difference] in flavor of Israeli produce and Palestinian farms, especially in the fruit department.”

A bottle of wine next to empty glasses. White chalk-like writing on the side of the bottle reads “Med Orientale 2020 Philokalia”.
Philokalia wine, used and sold at Asaf Doktor’s restaurant Dok.

As the vineyard heated up on that September morning, Sarras took me to his home, where the rest of the family was preparing to process the grapes to make malban. I was greeted at the door by Carlos Sarras, Jamil’s father. Carlos, now in his 80s, has been growing grapes all his life.

The first step in making malban is extracting the juice from the grapes. In the old days, the family would stomp on the grapes, Carlos explained, but they use a machine today to make the process easier. After straining out the seeds and skins a couple times, they let the juice boil down in a big pot, which can take a while. As we waited, the family invited me in for a breakfast of stewed tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, olive oil, and za’atar.

At breakfast, I learned more about the family and their history. Carlos was raised near Bethlehem, but his mother was a Palestinian born in Chile. Like many Palestinian families, the Sarrases have family living in the diaspora across the world.

In recent years, Palestinians in the diaspora have gained visibility through new restaurants and cookbooks. As part of this wave, a new generation of Palestinian chefs are modernizing Palestinian cuisine to great acclaim. While stuffed grape leaves can be found at most of these restaurants, grapes and grape products from Palestine itself rarely make it out of the territories. You can find Arak Muaddi and Philokalia wine at select liquor shops and restaurants in the U.S., but products like malban and dibs are harder to come by.

That international culinary recognition is also a fraction of what it could be. For Kassis, one existential threat to Palestinian food culture is “the false marketing of many of our foods abroad as Israeli, instead of Palestinian, which was a conscious effort to remove any mention of our existence,” she told me. When she first moved to the U.S., Kassis explained in the Washington Post, she was frustrated to see iconic dishes from her childhood served at Israeli restaurants without any mention of their Palestinian origins. Despite leading Israeli food scholars acknowledging that Israeli chefs first gleaned hummus and falafel from Palestinians, the erasure continues.

A man pours a yellow mixture from a large bucket onto a long plastic sheet, set in an outdoor covered patio. Two women stand nearby spreading the mixture with broom-like tools.
After boiling the malban, Jamil Sarras and his mother pour the mixture onto a sheet of heat-proof plastic on the family’s porch.
A person pours seeds from a strainer into a large pot of yellow mixture.
Sarras adds nigella seeds to the malban pot.

We the Palestinians have been caretakers for these grapes, preserving them and keeping them alive for so long,” Muaddi said, pointing out that the community has maintained 23 unique, heirloom grape varieties for thousands of years. “It would be a shame to lose this element of viticulture, because viticulture is very much a part of Palestinian culture.”

This is just one of the many ways Palestinians are trying to preserve their food culture and traditions under the active threat of violence and annexation. The Palestinian Heirloom Seed Library in Battir, just across the valley from the Sarras family home, preserves a variety of seeds and distributes them to Palestinian farmers. Today, seeds from the library are available for purchase in the U.S., allowing Palestinians in the diaspora to sow the seeds of Palestine in their own backyard.

As we finished our breakfast in the Sarras home, and the grape juice finally boiled down sufficiently, we added nuts and seeds to the malban, which lend the fruit leather the perfect combination of chew and crunch. We also added spices like aniseed, turmeric, and sesame seeds that subtly enhance the natural grape flavor. Finally, we added a mixture of flour and well water to thicken it.

The final step of the day was to pour out the mixture onto heatproof plastic and spread it into a thin layer to dry out for a week. In the past, Carlos told me, they would pour the mixture onto bedsheets, but they’ve switched to plastic. “The sheets were a mess,” he said.

Saying my farewells, I made plans to return at the end of the harvest to make dibs. But the war broke out and I have not made it back to the Sarras home.

“The situation is bad and we hope for the best,” Sarras told me on October 16. “Escalation leads to escalation and more radicalization of both parties. Enough people have died.”

The wait for malban to set or grapes to ripen is incomparable to the generations-long wait for peace. But the process of juicing, cooking, and drying grapes reveals a sliver of the paradoxical yet irresistible work the Sarras family and the Palestinian community do to preserve their traditions from total erasure. That work will have to continue. For now, many grapes remain on the vines.

Adam Sella is a journalist based in Tel Aviv covering Israel and Palestine. He’s written about topics ranging from food and the environment to war and conflict.

A long sheet of malban with a packaged slice laid on top. The label on the semi-transparent packaging reads “A product of Mr. & Mrs. Sarras. Made with love”.
The Sarras family’s malban.
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