“This is indeed a very fine tomato,” he said. “How much are you asking?”
“For his honor, the Habok, I am sure we can reach a fair price,” Mendelevitch answered.
The Habok turned to the Arabs who were sitting on the ground in the shade of the wagon, their hands tied behind their backs.
“This property belongs to the Jews,” he declared. “Their deed to this land is one-hundred percent legal, certified by the Director General of the Imperial Land Office in Constantinople. For your criminal theft of the tomatoes, I am fining you with the loss of your wagons, horses, and rifles, and one of you will have to come back with me to sit out a term in the Tiberias jail.”
One of the Arabs starting yelling. Angrily, he jumped to his feet. The Habok nodded to his soldiers. They rushed forward and grabbed the prisoner, silencing his shouts with a punch to the stomach and a quickly tied gag.
“Another outburst like that and I will put both of you in prison for attacking an officer of the Turkish Government,” the Habok threatened.
“There is also the money we paid to the sheik as a gesture of goodwill when we made the agreement,” Ben Zion said. “The Arabs insist he took off for the Negev, no doubt with our funds. It seems to me that some additional compensation is in order to cover our loss.”
“If he took off for the Negev, there is nothing I can do,” the Habok replied. “That is not in my jurisdiction. You will have to deal with the matter yourselves, but you should know that the Negev is a very big desert. It may be impossible to find him. I suggest the next time you think about signing an agreement with Arabs, you come see me first before scattering your money to the wind.”
Ben Zion glanced at Perchik with an “I told you so” expression.
“But to be sure that these Arabs are telling the truth, I will send one of my men with you to their village to see if the sheik is still there.”
The Turkish police chief stepped over to Mendelevitch to exchange a few private words. Mendelevitch listened, nodded his head, then stepped away to confer with Ben Zion and Perchik. Finally, an agreement was reached. The Habok saluted and headed back to Tiberias with a wagon load of tomatoes at almost half their market price. His profit from their sale in Tiberias would make him a rich man until the next harvest in the spring. Mendelevitch insisted that the loss of revenue was justified if the bribe would put an end to the kibbutz’s quarrel with the Arabs. Besides, the Jews were getting the two wagons and horses, not to mention the rifles. And, last but not least, it paid to have the Turkish official as their friend.
Without untying the hands of the Arab driver whom the Habok had left behind, Ben Zion gave him a solid kick in the rear and sent him stumbling on his way back to his village. A group of Jews set off with the Turkish soldier to see what had become of the sheik. But just as the Arabs had said, the sheik was nowhere to be found. The questions of the Turkish soldier only brought silence and blank, expressionless stares from the shepherds who remained in the few remaining tents. An elder smoking a water pipe confirmed that the sheik had gone south to the Negev, but in answer to Perchik’s question, where in the Negev, the old shepherd could only respond with a shrug and a cloud of sweet-smelling smoke.
The Turkish soldier said that as far as he was concerned, the case was closed. There was nothing more to be done. Perchik was seething with frustration as they headed back to the kibbutz.
“Don’t take it so hard, Perchik,” Ben Zion chided. “Anyone can make a mistake. But it does look like Tevye’s Bible stories are more accurate than your dreams of fraternity and peace.”
Perchik didn’t answer. True, his “sons of the desert” had turned out to be a caravan of thieves, but he was loath to abandon his belief in the potential brotherhood of man.