Gaza City — Abu Mohammed goes to great lengths to enjoy his wine in Gaza. Risking the wrath of the enclave’s Islamist Hamas rulers, he sneaks to the rooftop of an abandoned house to make his own nectar of the gods.
Here in his secret hideaway, Abu Mohammed carefully turns grapes into homemade vintages he savours only in the privacy of his own home, far away from the disapproving eyes of Hamas police and Gaza’s conservative society.
"I started making my own wine after Hamas took power," says the 40-something civil servant who, like all the other Gaza bootleggers interviewed by AFP, declined to give their real names for fear of being arrested. "I asked friends how to do it and I did some research on the Internet.”
Abu Mohammed risks much to indulge his palate.
Gaza has always adhered to traditional Islam and alcohol has never been widely available in the coastal strip.
Before Hamas swept the January 2006 parliamentary election, anyone could bring alcohol in from Israel and Egypt and a handful of restaurants and bars served spirits.
But that stopped when Hamas — the Arabic acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement — routed loyalists of the rival secular Fatah faction from the territory in June 2007 after a week of deadly street clashes.
Since then, the sale of alcohol in Gaza has been banned altogether under a de facto law imposed by Hamas.
"No liquor is authorised," warns a sign to visitors at the Erez border crossing checkpoint with Israel in the north, saying any alcohol found will be destroyed on the spot.
Meanwhile the smugglers doing a brisk trade in everything from cars to diapers through tunnels between southern Gaza and Egypt refuse to whisk alcohol into the territory for fear of running afoul of Hamas.
So people like Abu Mohammed must resort to their own devices.
"First I wash the grapes well, then I take off the stems, then I press them with my bare hands," he says, demonstrating the procedure. "The seeds stay at the bottom. I filter the juice and then add a small bit of yeast to speed up the fermentation, which takes at least 40 days."
The result, he admits, is "not as good as ‘real wine’" but under the present circumstances it is all he can get.
He knows that by indulging his palate he’s playing with fire.
"I am terrified by the idea of being discovered by Hamas police," he says. "That’s why I make sure to do it all alone and in secret and above all not to sell it."
Hussein knows the feeling. The 56-year-old — who has been making his wine in small wooden barrels "to add flavour" — is not only "afraid of being discovered by the Hamas police, who will have no mercy," but also of losing face in a socially conservative society that does not look kindly on imbibers.
Ziad, 30, says he drinks alone to minimise any chances of getting caught.
Hamas spokesman Taher al-Nunu says Gaza’s Islamist rulers "act on a case by case basis in line with Palestinian law. We act against commercial quantities. In cases of personal use production, we respect the law."
There are no figures on how many people in Gaza make their own booze, but anecdotal evidence suggests they are either very few or very good at hiding.
Jamal Dahshane, who heads the Hamas police anti-drug unit and considers confiscating alcohol a "social duty,” admits he’s never run across such a case.
"Even if we discover that a person makes his own alcohol, we don’t have the means to arrest him because Palestinian law does not prohibit alcohol consumption," he says. "Only the selling of alcohol can be considered as a criminal offence."
But Gaza’s daring bootleggers aren’t taking any chances.
All drink the fruit of their labours in very limited circles — at home, at night and either alone or with only wives and a few close friends present.
Ziad has never gotten drunk. Abu Mohammed allows himself to get tipsy, but never tipples more than four glasses.
Hussein does get drunk, and it once led to dangerous consequences — his neighbours saw him behaving strangely and confronted him. He denied he had been drinking and has tried to be more discreet since.
But despite all the risks and the fears, no one has any intention of giving up their dangerous hobby.
"I know that I live in a traditionalist society, but I consider that drinking alcohol is a matter of individual liberty," Abu Mohammed says.