A Palestinian Vineyard Annihilated With Chainsaws, With a Chilling Message in Hebrew

Vandals slashed hundreds of mature grape plants near Hebron, and the odds that the culprits will be caught are slim

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The destroyed vineyard in Halhoul, near Hebron.
The destroyed vineyard in Halhoul, near Hebron.Credit: Alex Levac

The grapes are shriveled. The vineyard is dead. Reduced to a large, dried-out, yellowing stain in the heart of the verdant region along Highway 60 where the road runs past the town of Halhoul, north of Hebron. The “yellow wind” that David Grossman wrote about 30 years ago is a dying vineyard here. Two plots of land, with hundreds of vines that were slashed, their stems and shoots sawed off – and within a week everything here had withered and died.

This is a particularly horrible sight because all the damage was wrought by the hand of man. A wicked, loathsome hand that hates not only Arabs but despises the land itself. In fact, we can assume that it wasn’t just one individual who raided and destroyed this vineyard late Tuesday night last week. To saw off that many plants in such a short time requires a few pairs of nasty hands. And someone also had to smear the threatening words in Hebrew on a rock: “We will reach everywhere.” All before first light illuminated the dark deed.

When dawn broke, the owner of the vineyard, Dr. Haitham Jahshan, a hematologist, arrived and couldn’t believe his eyes. His vines had been ravaged. First he saw one sawed trunk, then another and another – a sea of butchered vines, whose grapes were grown to be eaten, not for wine – until the full scale of the calamity hit home.

For his part, Musa Abu Hashhash, a field researcher for the B’Tselem human rights organization, says he’s never seen an act of so-called agricultural crime on this scale.

When we visited on Monday, Highway 60 was as busy as ever: As the major traffic artery running the length of the West Bank, it serves both Palestinians and settlers. The vineyard lies right next to the road, which has very narrow shoulders at that point. West of the highway looms a fortified Israel Defense Forces observation tower, an Israeli flag flapping above it, where soldiers are present day and night to protect all the local residents and safeguard their property. A network of security cameras covers the road from all directions – yet apparently no one saw anything on that night last week, no one heard the insidious infiltrators or the sounds of the sawing.

The butchery was obviously done with electric saws – the cuts are precise and sharp, from trunk to trunk, from shoot to shoot, nothing was left untouched, probably to ensure that nothing would remain. Almost all the slashing was done at the same height, about 40 centimeters (15 inches) above ground. A professional job. Many of the trunks look whole, but on closer examination, they too turn out to be cleaved. Some sway between heaven and earth, hanging in space, cut off from their bottom sections and roots. Wounded, scarred, cut in two – nearly 400 slashed vines, according to the owner, Jahshan.

We follow him, bending over as we pass through row upon row of truncated vines, beneath a ceiling of low iron lattices on which they are tangled and twined. There’s no way to raise your head here, no way to stand up. The soil is clear of stones and has been plowed: Those tending the land here turned the earth over using an all-terrain vehicle on the day after the spoliation, hoping a miracle would occur and the vineyard would begin to revive itself. But the miracle hasn’t happened. It’s clear now that it will be necessary to uproot the entire vineyard and to plant a new one in its place. It will then take three to five years for the first fruits to appear, and some 15 years – the age of the destroyed vineyard – for the crop to reach its optimal yield.

Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard, and so did Dr. Jahshan.

Though he lives in Halhoul today, Jahshan, 42, studied medicine in Jordan and from 1999 to 2006 did his residency in hematology and molecular genetics at the Hadassah Medical Center and the Herzog Medical Center, both in Jerusalem. Now he runs a blood-disease clinic at Al-Ahli Hospital in Hebron, but also devotes time to working the land from which his family earns a living. The vineyard covered five dunams, 1.25 acres – 5,000 square meters, he explains.

During the days that passed between the mutilation of the vineyard and our visit, everything withered, shriveled up. The leaves crumble between one’s fingers, the buds have been reduced to dust. This week’s hot, dry winds finished everything off.

On his cellphone, Jahshan shows us a photograph of the vineyard from last week, on the day after the assault: still green, like the vineyards to the left and right of his property.

Last Tuesday, Jahshan, together with his father, uncle and two of his brothers, sprayed the vineyard with pesticides, working from early in the morning until the early evening. They didn’t manage to complete the job and decided to return at first light. They left at about 6 that evening and were back at 6 the next morning – only to be dumbstruck by a sight that they will never forget.

An empty bag of chocolate milk from the Kibbutz Yotvata dairy lies on the ground amid the vines; perhaps the vandals drank chocolate milk as they savaged the vineyard, sucking and slashing. Their car must have been parked on the narrow shoulders of the highway, visible to everyone and seen by the security cameras.

In one part of the vineyard the raiders left a row of vines intact, perhaps fearful of being seen and caught. By the time they reached the southern section of it they were more confident, and wreaked total havoc. Great hatred must have driven them, complete meanness of spirit. The closest settlements are a few kilometers from here – Karmei Tzur to the north, Kiryat Arba and Givat Haharsina to the south. The immediate suspicion falls on their residents.

This is the highest spot in the West Bank and the terroir is excellent, the physician-vine grower tells us; he only watered the vineyard once or twice a year from a well at its edge, otherwise depending on rainfall. A few types of grapes were grown here, white and dark. From each sundered trunk, the yield was usually 10-15 cartons of fruit, about 150 kilos of grapes.

We take refuge from the heat in the shade of a peach tree in a nearby plot that has begun to yield fruit. “It was a vineyard at the height of its yield: 10 tons of grapes a year,” Jahshan tells us. In the years ahead, he won’t be harvesting the leaves, either, which sell for 25 shekels ($7) a kilo in the Hebron market. The harvest was due to begin in September – it starts later here, in the Hebron Hills – but now it’s been postponed indefinitely.

“Maybe I’ll plant pakos [Armenian cucumbers] instead of grapes,” he muses, and then immediately corrects himself. “Of course I’ll plant grapes again.” If he or someone from his family come to the vineyard after dark, he adds, the army or the police arrive within minutes: “They see everything, but somehow they didn’t see the vandals.”

Jahshan estimates the damage done to him and his family at about 250,000 shekels ($70,000), though it’s quite clear that the money is not his prime concern. He feels that there is no one to protect him and his property.

When he and his relatives arrived Wednesday morning they didn’t see anything amiss at first. The vineyard was still green. Even after he saw one vine cut, he never imagined that the whole vineyard had been ruined. They went immediately to the Halhoul Municipality, and from there called the Israeli-Palestinian District Coordination and Liaison Office to file a complaint. They called the police and the Israel Defense Forces, too, and were asked to go back to the vineyard, where police and army officers met them to survey the damage at about 11 o’clock.

A tracker examined footprints, photographs were taken, and Jahshan and the others were asked to go to the Kiryat Arba police station to file a complaint. It was the police who discovered the black inscription, “We will reach everywhere,” hidden amid the rocks. Jahshan hadn’t noticed it. Since then he hasn’t heard anything from the authorities.

Shlomit Bakshi, spokeswoman of the Judea and Samaria District of the Israel Police, told Haaretz, “Upon receiving the complaint, the police launched an investigation and several actions were taken. At this stage, the investigation is still underway.”

Jahshan comments drily that he hopes the police will find the culprits and bring them to justice, but adds, “If a child here had thrown a stone, they would have caught him already.”

Perhaps the intensive investigation will get an essential boost from Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who on Tuesday tweeted, “Ratcheting up the uncompromising war on agricultural crime. No longer mild punishment without deterrence Yesterday, a bill I sponsored was passed [by the Knesset] in the first vote [of three], stipulating that a police officer can levy a stiff fine in offenses involving agricultural crime. That way the criminal will receive immediate painful economic punishment.”

Agricultural crime, stiff and painful punishment – Shaked was undoubtedly referring also, perhaps even mainly, to the ongoing, routine agricultural terror perpetrated by Jewish vandals against Palestinian farmers.

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