The Magazine

The Stolen Car Process

Try getting your Ford Taurus back from the Palestinian Authority, and you will learn why Oslo failed

Apr 16, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 30 • By DANIEL DORON
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The best customer service in Israel is offered by Palestinian car thieves. I know. When our Ford Taurus was stolen recently, the thieves very politely offered to sell it back to us.

As upsetting as it was, the episode would hardly merit attention except as a cautionary tale about the seductions of trying to cut a rational deal with criminals. It also speaks volumes about how the Palestinian Authority is governed and how this affects its relations with Israel.

The saga began one night not long ago, when thieves picked two fairly sophisticated locks on our house and came in without a rustle while we were still awake. They took car keys, credit cards, cell phones, and other valuables. We later learned that operatives from Arafat's personal security guard, Force 17, were seen driving our car and had been involved in the theft. They'd reportedly been trained in sterile break-in techniques, sniper shooting, and other such skills by the CIA. The idea was to make Arafat's forces better able to fight terrorism, but the Palestinians are putting their know-how to other purposes.

The thieves apparently had no trouble neutralizing the car's coded locking mechanism, two alarm systems, and satellite-tracking device (all required by insurers in Israel). They also managed to evade the many roadblocks with which Israel has tried to encircle Palestinian towns in order to stop car bombs from reaching Israeli cities. These roadblocks, which photograph so well and make such potent television symbols of Israeli oppression, have more holes than Swiss cheese.

So some 70,000 stolen cars are transferred annually from Israel to the Palestinian Authority, along with a great deal of industrial and farm equipment, whole dental clinics (several in one night in Jerusalem recently, plus a complete wood-working factory), hospital labs, herds of cattle, beehives, anything thieves can lay hands on with the complicity of the Palestinian Authority. Some of this loot they use themselves, but much of it they sell to Israeli fences. The only Israelis who can enter Hamas strongholds in Gaza and come out alive are the fences.

The operations are very professional. Stolen cars are mostly disassembled within minutes and sold as spare parts. Our highly taxed cars (the tax at least doubles the dealer's price) sell for $ 25,000 to $ 50,000, but fetch only between $ 2,000 and $ 4,000 when sold in parts. The car thieves earn a mere $ 150 per heist, so they steal several cars a night, sometimes simply carting them away with tow-trucks marked as municipal traffic clearance vehicles.

Ford sells few Tauruses in Israel, so there was little demand for our car's parts. It was also too modest a car in the Ramallah market, glutted with cheap stolen Volvos, Mercedes, BMWs, and Lexuses. So the thieves concluded their best bet was to sell the Taurus back to us.

We got a call from a very soft-spoken, courteous gentleman, an Israeli Arab, who told us in graceful Hebrew that he'd been shopping around Ramallah for a cheap car. He found our Taurus too pricey. So he decided to make a couple of bucks by helping the thieves sell it back to us. He claimed they wanted $ 4,000, a fifth of its value on the normal used-car market.

After several bargaining sessions, all in good humor, we settled on $ 1,500. It seemed reasonable to swallow our pride and pay up, since otherwise, even after collecting insurance, we would be $ 10,000 out of pocket if we replaced the car. But we had to arrange a safe venue and mode of transaction. First we asked the thieves to return valuable records left in the car, as proof that they actually had it. They demanded payment, but then agreed to leave the papers with a vegetable vendor just inside the boundary of the Palestinian Authority as a gesture of goodwill. A Palestinian friend retrieved them.

I was then invited to Ramallah, capital of the Palestinian Authority, to bring the ransom and collect the car. I was promised a delicious meal afterwards in one of Ramallah's best restaurants. My interlocutor was a bit offended when I declined, explaining that I could not rely on his word that he would not rob me and then speed away with our car; or worse, that I would not be hacked to pieces, as has occasionally befallen Israelis who've innocently wandered into Palestinian towns.

The thieves retaliated. Why should they take my word that I wouldn't turn them in to the police if they came to East Jerusalem? Still, we concluded amicably that I would find an Israeli Arab who would do the honors, in no man's land.