Grapes of Wrath
By David Ignatius
Tuesday, December 23, 2003; Page A21
HALHUL, West Bank -- The Palestinians in this simple farming town just south of Bethlehem like to boast that they produce the best grapes in the world. So when I first visited Halhul in 1982, Hammadeh Kashkeesh made a point of showing me his little plot of vines on a sun-bleached hillside outside town.
When I returned recently, I asked to see the vines again, but Kashkeesh said it wasn't possible. His land is on the other side of a road that's now reserved for Israeli settlers, and the farmers aren't allowed to cross. So the vines have grown wild.
Halhul used to convey a sense of space and timeless permanence, even with the Israeli military camped in the center of town. My most vivid memory of the week I spent here was of sleeping on the roof of the Kashkeesh house under a blanket of stars, and as I dozed off, hearing Hammadeh's father boom out: "This is the best." If the old man were still alive, I don't think he would say that now.
You have to see the West Bank to understand how Israeli settlements and the network of special roads for them have turned the area into a checkerboard, where Palestinians feel like outsiders in the land where they were born. That doesn't in any way excuse terrorist attacks on Israelis, but it helps a visitor understand why this conflict is so intractable.
Since the Palestinian intifada that began three years ago, the Israelis have reimposed controls that were relaxed during the years after the 1993 Oslo Accords. A dirt barrier now blocks the main entrance to Halhul, and until recently there was a gate at the other entrance where Palestinians had to show their papers when they came and went.
Travel is difficult, even within the West Bank. Kashkeesh's 21-year-old daughter, Leila, who is studying physics at Bethlehem University, has to take five different buses and nearly two hours to get to a school that's just 15 minutes down the Israeli settlers' road.
Kashkeesh, 55, still makes a modest living cutting marble stones for kitchen counters and stair steps. His income has fallen to about $340 a month, roughly a quarter of what he earned before the intifada. That's barely enough to feed his family, but unlike many local residents, he hasn't had to turn to charity.
Halhul had a moment of optimism after Oslo. Investors built factories producing grape juice and steel products, but they are closed now. The local barber is making about half what he did, and a man running a clothing store says he barely covers his costs. "I'm doing this rather than sitting at home," he says glumly.
The Palestinian Authority occupies a grand new building, but Kashkeesh says that Yasser Arafat's government has been a big disappointment. "They came with the attitude that they had liberated this land, but it seemed to me that every one of them was a money-lover."
Even in the quiet of his terrace, relaxing under the shade of a grape arbor, Kashkeesh looks tired. But he is very proud of his six children, and the fact that he has sent the three oldest to college on his stonecutter's salary.
It would be wrong to say that he has been defeated, but he has been worn down. When he was young he spent six years in prison because of his membership in a militant PLO faction, and he was later held without charges for nearly a year. A few years ago an Israeli tear gas canister landed in his kitchen; his wife later miscarried and lost twins. Now he avoids politics and keeps mostly to himself.
As we sit on the terrace, we can hear a fiery Friday sermon blaring from loudspeakers at the local mosque. Kashkeesh's two sons soon return from prayers carrying a leaflet from the militant Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas. "Death is only a race toward our God," urges the leaflet. Despite such appeals, no one from Halhul has joined in suicide attacks on Israel, Kashkeesh says.
I ask Kashkeesh why Halhul has kept its head, while occupation has driven so many other Palestinians crazy. "Discipline is very strong here," he answers. "Even those who are religious know that killing innocents is not an Islamic thing."
Before I leave, Kashkeesh tells me a story he never mentioned before. In 1973, just after leaving prison, he was working in the kitchen of an Israeli resort in Arad. An Israeli infant playing alone fell into the pool, and although Kashkeesh didn't know how to swim, he jumped in and saved the boy.
I think what Kashkeesh is telling me is that for all he has endured he would do it again, if someone gave him the chance.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company