Cars: Palestinians turn car theft into act of rebellion

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The Independent Online
Israel has one of the highest rates of car theft in the world. The thieves are mostly Palestinian and the victims Israelis. Patrick Cockburn in Jerusalem says political divisions have created a car thieves' paradise.

Four times in the past four years Lily Herchkovitz has woken up in her house in the Arnona district of Jerusalem to find her car has been stolen overnight.

It happened first in 1993 when her Subaru 88 was taken. "I guess I was lucky that time," says Mrs Herchkovitz, 46, who runs an employment agency. "I had left a pile of Zionist literature on the back seat and the [Palestinian] thieves, having driven to Bethlehem, decided to burn it. They parked the car, and set the offending papers on fire. There was such a lot of smoke that the border police were alerted. My car was returned to me within 24 hours."

The next year, the Subaru 88 was stolen for good. In 1995, the Subaru Legacy '91 she bought to replace it went and, a few months later, her new Mazda. "I'm wiser now,' Mrs Herchkovitz says. "I'll never buy a Subaru again, since it's so popular with thieves."

Israel's rate of car theft is three times higher than that in the US. Nobody is immune. Earlier this year, a Mercedes worth 350,000 shekels (pounds 70,000) belonging to Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the religious party Shas, was stolen despite being equipped with elaborate anti-theft devices. It was found in Hebron, partly stripped.

The thefts are one aspect of the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians. Car thieves are usually Palestinian; the victims Israeli. The district where you are most likely to have your car stolen is the Sharon area, north of Tel Aviv. It is close to the Palestinian autonomous enclave at Tulkarm, where cars are cut up for spare parts in what are known locally as "slaughter houses".

As Palestinian living standards plummeted over the last five years because Israel repeatedly sealed off the West Bank and Gaza, car theft became one of the few growth industries. Rubbish dumps near Palestinian towns are often heaped with the remains of stripped vehicles.

Israelis say the Palestinian Authority of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, does worse than turn a blind eye. At the end of October, Israeli police manning the main checkpoint into Gaza at Erez stopped General Zihraya Balusha, a senior officer in Palestinian security, who was driving in a Mercedes from Ramallah on the West Bank. Although he presented a VIP card allowing him through, the police discovered the car had been stolen four days before in Tel Aviv.

A few days earlier, police confiscated a Mercedes at Erez which had been stolen only the night before in Jerusalem. It was being driven by Musa Abu Sabha, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, from Hebron. He claims he was set up by "people in the Palestinian Authority who are bothered by my stand against corruption". A few days later Mr Arafat reportedly ordered the arrest of Dr Jibril Tilbani, the director-general of the Palestinian Ministry of Transport, on suspicion that he headed a ring which smuggled stolen cars from Israel to Gaza.

But the heart of the problem is very simple. Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank are desperately poor. Their per capita income has fallen by 15 per cent since 1992. Employment of Palestinians in Israel has dropped by three-quarters. Car theft is easy. In October, police stopped a stolen car and found in the vehicle a price list showing how much thieves are paid for different models. The prices ranged from about pounds 70 for a Honda Civic to pounds 300 for a Chevrolet Corsica.

Amos Yaffe, managing director of the ISI insurance agency, says about 40 per cent of all claims are for car theft. "There's a joke going around the insurance companies - why not pay Arafat 500 million shekels (pounds 100m) up front for not stealing our cars," he said.

Some drivers offer ransoms for their cars by calling the thieves on the mobile phone, a common attachment in Israeli vehicles. In one co-operative farming community, Moshav Beit Yitzhak, north of Tel Aviv, which lost 60 cars in two years, residents set up their own security company which patrols 24 hours a day. Asked who steals the cars, Eli Kolan, 41, the community manager, says: "Tulkarm residents. It's only about 10 kilometres from here, so in three minutes they are back home. In my opinion, they have inside information because we have about 50 [Palestinian] labourers from Tulkarm. We can't manage without them."