In a small room in her home in the Gaza strip, 49-year-old Umm Joseph, sits on the floor holding a knife with a plastic handle, which she uses to separate the good grapes from the bad, and splice off the roots before placing the best ones in a metal bowl in preparation for squeezing.
“We used to buy spirits in the markets from time to time, but after Hamas took over the Gaza strip, it became impossible to obtain them,” she said, adding: “So we have to make them by hand, and in secret.”
In 2007, the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, took control of the Gaza strip and closed down or burnt all alcohol outlets. The Islamist group enforced strict oversight of all crossings into Gaza, prohibiting the passage of alcohol or drugs. Since then, alcohol has been banned in the besieged territory, which is home to about 2 million people.
Umm Joseph (mother of Joseph) says that she does not sell her alcohol. She makes it for her family and some close friends. “The holiday season calls for some wine with friends and family,” she said.
Explaining her method, Umm Joseph says she squeezes the grapes with her hands into a round filter.
“After washing the grapes well, I squeeze them in a container, then I filter them and add some white cheese to accelerate the formation of bacteria and the fermentation,”she said.
She continues to describe the process to Asia Times, while she pours the grape juice into a 20 liter wooden barrel, linked to a five liter container that is half filled with water.
“I close the barrel and the container tightly, and leave it for 50 days, so that the gasses move from the barrel to the container,” she said.
After the wine is properly fermented, she uses a piece of cotton cloth to filter the liquid and pour it into bottles. Then, she says, it is ready to drink.
Fifty-year-old Hana Ayash (a pseudonym to protect his identity), considers himself an expert wine maker. He takes pride in his method of leaving the bad grapes in the mix, as he says it helps the fermentation. He adds a large spoon of yeast to each five kilograms of grapes and closes the container using a balloon or medical gloves.
After two months, when the balloon fills with gas to the point of near explosion, he makes a small piercing to allow the gas to escape, then pours the wine into bottles. The wine can be stored for up to one year, he says.
Ayash says he prefers to work alone, for fear of attracting the attention of the authorities.“I also don’t sell it,” he added.
The winemaker’s favorite grapes for making wine come from the occupied West Bank city of Hebron, as its grapes are known for their extra sweetness. Ayash says they are unique in their shape and taste, as they are grown at a high elevation rich in water.
The past 12 years of Israeli siege has left him cut off from his favorite ingredient, so he must settle for local grapes, grown in the Sheikh Ajlin area at the southwestern edge of Gaza city.
Zaid Khoury (a pseudonym) uses a similar method to Ayash’s to make his home-made wine, although he prefers to weed out the bad grapes like Umm Joseph.
The 29-year-old sees his craft as a matter of personal freedom, insisting that the current Islamist government, and any government, should respect other religions and lifestyles.
But his problems go beyond the strictures of Hamas. The price of grapes has risen to about $2 per kilogram, making them a luxury in an economy devastated by years of siege.
“The economic situation in Gaza has greatly deteriorated, and the prices have risen a lot,” Khoury told Asia Times.
“It’s hard enough for a person to purchase their most basic necessities; I can barely afford to make enough wine for the year,” he said.
But the demand remains. Hamas in recent years has foiled alcohol smuggling attempts and destroyed large quantities of alcohol destined for residents of the strip.
Secret winemakers in Gaza generally manage to stay under the radar. They are aided by the fact that Palestinian law does not forbid the import or consumption of alcohol. In the West Bank, for example, the Taybeh microbrewery and its sister winery have a dedicated consumer base. These are rules which Hamas, has nonetheless imposed.
Ahraf Abou Sido, a legal consultant for the Hamas counter-narcotics unit in Gaza told Asia Times that “no one has been arrested for making wine at home or any other place for years.”
He insists, however, that deterring secret winemakers is a duty toward society.