A lengthy motorcade of members of Israel's peace movement today wound its way through army roadblocks and taunting Jewish ultra-nationalists to symbolically plant grapevines as compensation to an Arab farmer whose vineyards were destroyed last month by militant Israeli settlers near here.
It took about 500 of the Peace Now movement three hours to make what is usually a 30-minute drive from Jerusalem to this ancient West Bank city. Along the way they were cheered by Arab youths and harassed by Israeli soldiers and members of the ultranationalist Gush Emunim (Faith Bloc).
When they finally arrived, the nearly mile-long motorcade participants planted only four seedlings in a rocky field far from the site of the anti-Arab vandalism.
Yet the symbolism was not lost on the local Palestinian residents, and the peace activists claimed a victory over government "supression" and ultranationalist vigilantism that reached far beyind the material gesture.
In an unusual display of empathy for a Jewish demonstration in the occupied territory, the local Arab residents waved olive branches with the peace activists, shouted "shalom" and "salaam" and held up peace pamphlets given them by the demonstrators.
The reason for the motorcade was a night raid on an Arab-owned vineyard on Jaabari Hill last month by militant residents of the Kiryat Arba settlment, who used power saws to cut down 500 fully grown grape vines.
Kiryat Arba residents, while individually refusing to admit complicity in the damage, said it was justified because they intend to expand the settlement onto the Arab-owned hill. One Gush Emunim member was picked up for questioning about the incident, but was released today by the military authorities for a lack of evidence.
The vine-cutting incident, coupled with an increasing frequency of clashes between ultranationalist settlers and Arab residents-including the fatal shooting of two Palestinian high school youths in nearby Halhul-has heightened tensions in this predominently Arab city.
The Peace Now motorcade was blocked in midafternoon about halfway from Jerusalem to Hebron by three army vehicles and its leaders were told they could not demonstrate without a permit.
Although the demonstrators, anticipating the roadblock, had surreptitiously planted some vines on Jaabari Hill early in the morning, they blocked the highway and demanded access to Hebron to plant more vines and demonstrate in support of the Arab residents.
"They [the army] are making fools of themselves. This is supposed to be the land of Israel. Why do we need permission to go in?" said Meir Pail, a Shelli (Peace Party) member of the Israeli Parliament.
"The Arabs in Hebron said they would be happy to have us. Why won't the military governor let us pass?"asked Orgad Wardimon, a Peace Now leader.
For nearly three hours, the demonstrators blocked the highway and, in a carnival-like atmosphere with blaring music and singing, created a massive traffic jam.
After lengthy negotiations, the authorities finally removed the road - block, and the motorcade continued to Hebron, with residents of the nearby Gush Etzion settlement jeering from the roadside and hurling ultranationalist pamplets at the cars.
An Arab bus passed, and Palestinians wearing the traditional Arab key - feith (headdress) shouted and waved Peace Now signs that had been passed to them through the windows.
In a field about two miles from Jaabari, which the army had declared off - limits to the demonstrators, Palestinian children mingled with the Israelis, clapping their hands gaily to Jewish folk music and shouting "shalom. "
Some Peace Now members said they would be back with more grapevines, and that the group intended to continue countering what they termed a "hate campaign" against the Arabs by some Jewish settlers in the West Bank.
"We're soldiers of Israel, too, and tomorrow we'll be in uniform defending the state like everyone else. But there's no place in Israel for cutting somebody's vineyards down," said Wardimon.