In Israeli settlement, evangelicals help harvest grapes

Har Bracha (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) –

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Dangling off vines at Har Bracha settlement in the occupied West Bank, the grapes are plump and ready to pick. This year, evangelical Christians are volunteering for the job.

Missouri-based HaYovel organises "faith-based volunteering" for Christian backers of Israel.

"Our mission is to take an active role in, and educate people about, the prophetic RESTORATION of the land of Israel that is happening TODAY," says its website.

More than 450,000 Israelis live in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Many are attracted by low rents, but others are motivated the religious dream of re-establishing a Jewish presence in what they see as their historic homeland.

That goal is strongly backed by evangelical Christians, particularly in the US, where devout church-goers are seen as key in President Donald Trump's re-election bid.

In Har Bracha, near the ancient Palestinian city of Nablus, around a hundred Christians are working the vineyards this year, including visitors from the US, Canada and Britain.

The settlements, founded after the Six-Day War of 1967 when Israel seized swathes of territory including east Jerusalem and the West Bank, block Palestinian dreams of an independent state and are widely seen as violating international law.

But a controversial plan unveiled by Trump in January gave Washington's blessing to Israeli annexation of large chunks of the West Bank, including the settlements.

Israel has since agreed to delay those plans under its normalisation deal with the United Arab Emirates.

The conflict has never been far from Har Bracha.

An Arab Israeli was sentenced to life in prison last year for the "nationalistically motivated" murder of rabbi Itamar Ben Gal, who lived in the settlement.

Rights groups regularly accuse some Har Bracha residents of attacking Palestinians with arson attacks and beatings.

Even the wine is controversial. Settlements exporting produce to Europe have fallen foul of 2015 EU guidelines on labelling products, including wine, to identify them as coming from the occupied territories rather than Israel.

Europe's top court has ruled that settlement products must be clearly labelled so customers can make informed choices based on "ethical considerations" and concerns over international law.