Out of Israel: West Bank's car wars herald hope for peace

JERUSALEM - In broad daylight, a German tourist recently saw his Israeli- rented car overturned in Salah al-Din, Arab east Jerusalem's main street, before being showered with rocks. 'I love Palestine. I am not a Jew,' he cried, but it was too late.

The shabab (Palestinian youths) did later apologise to the victim, admitting he was not a valid target, but by that time the man was in hospital recovering from his broken bones.

The number of suspect Jewish cars left stoned or smouldering along Salah al-Din is always a good measure of intifada activity. In recent weeks it has increased: a direct by-product of Mr Rabin's deportations. Israeli settlers, the prime targets, race through enemy areas at high speed on the way to their protected enclaves. The thick reinforced windows of their cars are often covered with grilles. In Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank, settlers have painted numbers along the route so that if they are attacked they can radio for help, giving a precise location.

But like Mr Rabin when he chose his deportees, the shabab make mistakes about their victims. The non-Israeli visitor to the West Bank who goes as friend not foe, usually takes precautions: the prayer mat on the seat; the Koran dangling by the window, or a keffiyeh (Arab head-dress) on the dashboard, are all commonly used.

The best precaution, however, has always been to hire a car from a Palestinian firm - at least until now. The German tourist was recommended immediately to go to a Palestinian firm: Petra. But only a few days earlier a Petra car had been torched. And Holy City, another Palestinian firm, which opened only six months ago, has seen three of its fleet go up in flames in the past two weeks. Behind these attacks lies a new phase of the car wars: caused less by the intifada and more by the prospect of peace.

Until recently there was only one car rental firm in east Jerusalem, Petra, which ran a slick and highly successful operation. While the intifada, with its strikes and protests, starved most Palestinian businesses, Petra boomed, cashing in on a unique market of journalists, aid volunteers and ordinary Palestinian visitors, who needed to visit intifada areas but could not take the risk of hiring in Israel. Petra cars are daubed with Arabic writing and come with a free keffiyeh. Petra also serve the Palestinian delegation who frequently need to change cars for security reasons, fearing attacks by settlers or Palestinian militants.

With the prospect of peace, however, new rent-a-car firms have been sniffing a market far bigger than this: tourists. East Jerusalem is a gateway to a rent-a- car heaven. As yet undeveloped, tourist and pilgrim sites abound on the West Bank and can only be reached by road. Petra say they have no fear of good healthy competition.

What they do fear is Israeli-based firms moving in to steal what should be their custom. Shortly after Holy City set up shop, Faisal al-Husseini, the leader of the Palestinian peace delegation, was attracted by the company's low rates, the PLO coffers running a bit short. He was shocked, however, to discover that he was being asked to sign a contract not with Holy City, but with an Israeli- based firm and withdrew his custom. Although Holy City denies it, the rumour quickly spread that Holy City was a front for the Israel-based offices of Hertz, trying to get in on the act across the old Green Line.

It doesn't take long for the shabab to act on information like that. Nobody knows who did the torchings, but the punishment was for suspected collaboration. And, needless to say, Petra believe Holy City's men torched their car in retaliation.

For the Israeli government, the car wars mean more expense: under Israeli law compensation must be paid out of state coffers for all 'intifada-related' car damage. For the visitor, the car wars pose new dilemmas when selecting a vehicle to drive down Salah al-Din. But the wars may also herald good tidings. The businessmen - Israeli and Palestinian alike - appear to believe that peace is on the way and the dividend worth fighting over.

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