Transfer of power an uncertain blessing for Palestinian car thief in the Gaza Strip

May 19, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

BIET LAHIA, Gaza Strip -- It is with decidedly mixed emotions that Mahmoud greets the arrival of the Palestinian police in the Gaza Strip.

He fears they will break up a tiny bit of Jewish-Arab cooperation in which he is involved; that is, the stealing of cars in Israel and smuggling them into the Gaza Strip.

"We will stop for a while to see what's going on, to see what they do to us," he reflected. "Maybe this work will all be over."

If so, it would be the end of a lucrative and reasonably safe occupation for Mahmoud, 23. He does not give his family name; it is not the sort of business in which it is wise to advertise.

The Israeli police were hampered, to put it mildly, in trying to catch car thieves in the 24-mile-long Gaza Strip. The police were considered the enemy, their every step watched. Just to go into the strip required an eight-man, two-jeep, armed Army escort, hardly the best accompaniment for stealthy detective work.

"To make a criminal investigation in Gaza is almost a military operation," said Col. Yossi Rosenberg, head of the auto theft squad of the National Police. "In the Gaza Strip, basically it hasn't been done in the last couple of years."

As a result, car theft became a thriving industry in the Gaza Strip. It blossomed this week as a new Palestinian police force replaced withdrawing Israeli forces. People figured that this might be the last chance for awhile, Mahmoud said.

The results are not hidden. Carefully negotiating the pitted, dirt roads and puddles of sewage are dozens of shiny new cars -- Mazdas, Subarus, Mercedes -- their Israeli license plates covered with cardboard in the slightest nod to discretion.

About 24,000 cars are stolen each year in Israel -- about one in 50, according to Colonel Rosenberg. Half are found, usually abandoned. Colonel Rosenberg estimates that 1,500 to 2,000 end up in the Gaza Strip.

Some are sold whole with forged papers or altered serial numbers. But the majority are disassembled in the back of a garage or in the privacy of a dark citrus grove, he said.

"The circle is complete when an Arab dealer takes the stolen parts to an Israeli merchant in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem," he said. The buyers are not naive -- they know that parts bought at half the usual price must be stolen, he said.

This business is not difficult, Mahmoud said. He works with one of several "mafias," as he calls them, which include Jews and Arabs.

Four in the gang will descend on a car parked in the 40-mile strip between Gaza and Tel Aviv. Each has a specialized duty: one quickly jimmies a door; one stands lookout; one is posted by the hood to hot-wire the ignition; another disables the alarm or breaks the anti-theft lock.

"There is no car I can't steal in a few minutes," said Mahmoud, though he acknowledged that the German-made BMW can be a challenge.

Rarely is there danger of being caught. Even when owners have come upon the crime, they do not challenge the thieves, he claimed.

Mahmoud said they may steal as many as seven cars in a night, then cut a hole in the high fence that isolates the Gaza Strip.

They have 15 minutes between army patrols at the fence, he said. They quickly shovel dirt or put straw bales into the 5-foot ditch dug by the Israelis beside the fence, then drive the cars through.

"It's fast. And it is more dangerous to go through the checkpoint. This way we save money," because the gang member who goes through the checkpoint -- and risks being asked by a soldier for the car's papers -- will demand a hefty cut in profits, he said.

Although Mahmoud said that he often does the stealing, his specialty is reselling the car. It may go through 10 hands before ending up at the place of its final disassembly.

Cars are expensive in Israel. A new compact can cost the equivalent of $15,000. Mahmoud sells it for about $1,000, he said, and keeps for himself less than $200.

But by Gaza standards, that is a month's wages.

"It's an easy way to make money. I can work one night, if I want to,and rest for the next 29 days."

Mahmoud does not boast. He is a quiet man, with curly hair and a light beard. He soothes his infant son as he talks to a reporter, hardly the picture of a hard-bitten crook. His wife worries about him when he works, he admits.

"Yes, it is wrong," he says of his stealing. "Believe me, if I had a good job, good money, I would never think about stealing cars."

Some of his Palestinian companions say that they are striking back at Israelis, but Mahmoud rejects this excuse.

"Stealing from an Israeli or from a Gazan is the same," he said.

Except safer. Until now.

In the close quarters of the Gaza Strip, quite a few people know his line of work. They would not dare tell the Israeli police, for fear of being branded a collaborator, which could be fatal. But with the arrival of the Palestinian police, there may be no such reservations.

Indeed, the first case solved by the Palestinian police came Monday after an Israeli reported his car stolen just outside a Gaza Strip checkpoint.

The police fanned out, talked to neighbors and returned with the car -- and the thief -- within 90 minutes.

"The people will cooperate with them," Mahmoud worried. "If I can find a good job, maybe I'll stop."

Colonel Rosenberg is not convinced that it will work that way.

"I think things will change for the worse," he said. "Until now, if we have information or enough evidence, theoretically I can arrange to arrest someone. It's true we don't do so a lot, but theoretically I can. Now, they will have a safe base."

He may have cause to worry. According to an army spokesman, Israeli soldiers who had withdrawn to a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip detained two Palestinian police yesterday driving DTC nearby. According to the army, they were in a stolen Subaru.

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