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Theft of cars becomes common in West Bank


BEIT KAHIL, Israeli-Occupied West Bank -- Like leftover bones from a great feast, the stripped metal skeletons of automobiles litter the rolling hillside around this small Palestinian village.

The remnants of the Ford Escorts, Toyota Corollas and Volkswagen Rabbits here and around other nearby villages are the only visible evidence of what has become a stunning example of Arab-Israeli cooperation -- a venture in which wayward Arab youths, successful Israeli businessmen, officials in the fledging Palestinian Authority, and even the occasional Israeli soldier all share a common goal: car theft.

Stealing cars has become a booming business since the Middle East peace process began nearly two years ago. Police figures show that 28,000 cars were stolen last year in Israel -- a country of 5 million people.

And a recent insurance industry study predicted that one in three new cars now purchased in Israel will be stolen during the course of its lifetime -- which gives new meaning to the expression "the price of peace."

It is a drawback to the easing of political tensions, costing the country unmeasured millions of dollars in higher insurance premiums, in creased police efforts and time lost by the victims.

"It's a huge problem," said Chief Inspector Boaz Goldberg, spokesman for a special police unit formed last year -- in part to combat the car-theft epidemic.

Several factors contribute to the situation: reduced political tensions that have increased freedom of movement in the occupied territories, desperation among Palestinians unable to find work, the lure of super-profits for some unscrupulous Israeli business owners and the unusually high official price of spare auto parts.

Israeli insurance companies are threatening to quit the auto field altogether because they have taken such a hammering.

"It would be an acute step, but it could come to that," said Rimon Ben-Shaul, head of the Israel Insurance Association. "The industry lost 500 million sheckels [$170 million] last year, and that can't go on at this level."

Police say thieves range from Palestinians as young as 12 and hustling for cash, to a former Israeli police officer and an Israeli Army sergeant, charged last January with trying to take a stolen car into the Gaza Strip.

Frequently, cars stolen in Israel are driven into Palestinian-controlled areas of the Gaza Strip and Jericho, where they are sold at bargain-basement prices, usually to buyers who know exactly what they are getting.

Last April, Gaza Police Chief Ghazi Al-Jabali estimated that about 25,000 Gazans, including several political and police officials, were driving stolen cars.

In some instances, the buyers are Palestinian officials, who must only be careful not to drive them into Israeli-controlled areas.

In an attempt to gain some control over the situation, Gaza authorities even declared a brief amnesty this year, permitting .. stolen car "owners" the chance to register and legalize their vehicles. The only catch: They couldn't resell the cars or drive them into Israeli-controlled areas.

But then sometimes people just forget where they are.

An off-duty member of the Jericho Palestinian Police was arrested in September in Israeli-controlled territory driving a Daihatsu that was stolen off a Tel Aviv street two weeks earlier.

While Israeli police officials claim that a recent raid on 15 auto repair shops in Israel at least has made a dent in the brisk trade in stolen spare parts, they admit that it will be hard to control completely. The recovery rate of stolen cars last year dropped to 40 percent from the 50 percent figure of 1993.

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