After rounding up a troop of armed shomrim, the Jews started off in pursuit. Ben Zion rode at the head of the cavalry. Ironically, his soldiers looked as much like Arabs as the Arabs did themselves. If Tevye had been in the middle of a battle, he wouldn’t have known in which direction to shoot. The shomrim had adopted the white blouses, kefiah headdress and head band to show that the Jews were an indigenous part of the Land, and not out-of-place looking Russians. Until the shomer groups had been organized, the Arabs had nicknamed the unarmed pioneers “Sons of Death,” because their kibbutzim were so vulnerable to attack. More than a few Jewish land surveyors had been found murdered in the hills, and Bedouin highwaymen made traveling a risky affair. At first, to protect themselves, the Zionists had hired Arabs to guard their isolated enclaves, but when pillage and theft became an almost nightly occurrence, the new Jewish immigrants realized that they would have to defend their settlements by themselves.
As if to make the chase after the tomato thieves easier, the culprits had left a trail of discarded, insect-eaten tomatoes which a child could have followed. Driving his wagon over the primitive terrain, Tevye winced every time its wheels hit a bump. Surprisingly, the thieves had not taken their booty to their camp. At a crossroad, the trail of bruised tomatoes continued westward toward the sea. Ben Zion reasoned that the Arabs were taking the harvest straight to the port city of Acco, where the fresh vegetables would command a higher price. At his urging, the Jews kept in hot pursuit. Before long, they caught up with their harvest. Two wagons piled high with tomatoes, and accompanied by a half dozen Arab women on foot, rumbled slowly along the road. Apparently, the women had done the looting while the armed drivers had stood guard. Ben Zion fired a shot in the air, and the kidnapped tomatoes came to a halt. Clearly outnumbered by the rifled shomrim, the drivers held up their hands in surrender. The women started screaming in high-pitched, hysterical wails. They pelted the Jews with tomatoes. Tevye was hit in the head. The barrage ended only when the kibbutzniks retreated out of range, not out of fear, but to salvage their precious crop.
“What do you want with us?” one of the drivers called out.
“We want our tomatoes,” Ben Zion answered.
“The tomatoes are ours,” the Arab said. “They grew in our fields.”
“We had an agreement,” Mendelevitch declared. “You promised to keep away from our crops.”
The Arab shook his head. “There was never any agreement.”
“What?!” the startled kibbutz treasurer asked. “I was there. I witnessed the payment. If you don’t believe me, we will go and speak with the sheik.”
“The sheik has moved his tribe to the Negev,” the Arab informed.
Mendelevitch was speechless. He stared open mouthed at Ben Zion.
“Tell them, Tevye,” he muttered. “You were there. Tell them you saw the sheik promise to keep his people away from our fields.”
Before Tevye could answer, another barrage of tomatoes came flying through the air like miniature red cannonballs. The Arab women had snuck back within range. Ben Zion fired a shot over the heads of the screaming women, frightening them away. His white blouse was stained crimson with tomato paste as if he had been shot in the heart.
“I should shoot one of them to teach them a lesson,” he said. “If only to get even for Peter.”
He raised his rifle and aimed at the driver who had done all of the talking.
“Wait,” Mendelevitch shouted. “I say we speak to the Turkish Habok. He’s in charge of this region. Before we act on our own, we should notify the Turkish authorities. It’s their job to settle this matter.”
The office of the local Habok was a good three-hour ride down the mountain at the base of Lake Kinneret.
“It will take us all day,” Ben Zion said. “Besides, we have talked long enough. Perchik’s peace is a joke. They have stolen our money. They have stolen our harvest. They have stolen our well. What other outrages are we to tolerate before we strike back?”