Gone in 60 Seconds

Sitting in the parking lot of the apartment house in Nablus' Rafidia neighborhood was a big clean white 2006 Mazda, without a scratch on it. With a yellow license plate - meaning the car was from Israel. Whose car is it? What is it doing here? In Nablus these are reasonable questions to ask. The entry of Israelis into the city, under siege these past six years, is prohibited. And anyway, only a few hundred cars are legally permitted to be here.

By a process of elimination, the visitor soon reaches the conclusion that it is a stolen car. A conversation with two car thieves in Nablus two days earlier, and an intensive study tour with a taxi driver named Yakoub on the subject of the origin of cars in the city, made it easy to categorize the Mazda. Two small posters taped to the front and back windshields of the car also helped: one was of a shaheed [martyr] of the Al-Aqsa Brigades, the other of Yasser Arafat. This is not a car that is about to attempt passage through the Israel Defense Forces checkpoints that besiege Nablus. Nor could it be the car of a member of the city's Samaritan community: they are the only Israelis whose entry into Nablus in their vehicles (which have Israeli license plates) is permitted.

A few hundred Samaritans hold both Israeli citizenship and Palestinian identity cards. They live in a separate neighborhood, up on Mount Gerizim. A checkpoint with four soldiers oversees all traffic in and out. Entry and exit is permitted only to Samaritans, to a handful of other Palestinians living in the same neighborhood, and to workers employed there.

But the riddle remains unsolved: How did this stolen car get into besieged Nablus? And how did the 2007 Audi offered for sale in a respectable office in Nablus five days ago for only NIS 16,000 get in? And how did the approximately 1,100 stolen cars that work as taxis, with their forged plates barely distinguishing them from those of the 2,100 official and legal taxis, get in?

One can only guess. After all, aside from the six checkpoints manned by IDF soldiers, the other access routes into the city have been sealed shut, and danger of arrest or even death lurks for anyone attempting to bypass them.

The two car thieves who agreed to speak with this journalist, only because a driver named Yakoub asked them to, disclosed one method for smuggling while concealing others, volunteered information and then immediately contradicted themselves, hinted that behind every little car thief, there was a big boss, but refused to elaborate on the subject. Yakoub says that the mint-condition stolen cars prove they were not smuggled via dirt and gravel paths, but on well-paved roads. But the two car thieves never expressly said so. Nor did they seek to make a national, patriotic issue out of their "work."

The first to arrive at the meeting was Adel, 24, who was also the first to leave "because I have a ton of work" (as the driver of his stolen car). When his friend Munir, 26, showed up a few minutes later, they began to explain - in duet - the nature of their work, all the while spicing their descriptions and explanations with Hebrew slang.

Munir: "If you're interested, within a quarter of an hour I can go and bring you a car from Tel Aviv."

Adel: "When I come in with a car, I don't stop at anything. Not for a tank and not for a bulldozer and not for my grandmother. I just drive."

And how do you steal a car?

Munir: "First I break the window, and remove the computer. I've got my own computer, with a key, and then I immediately start it up."

How long does it take?

Munir: "A minute and a half, tops, and then I'm on easy street. So I make NIS 20,000 in less than 5 minutes."

Adel: "We don't work that way anymore. Now we only work by phone. You get word about someone who wants to hand over his car and then declare it stolen."

How can you enter Israel?

Munir: "Either with a counterfeit ID or by making a huge circuit. It's now 8 P.M., right? By 9:30, I'm in Tel Aviv."

How did you start?

Munir: "I was 19. I worked for a Jew, doing apartment renovations. He paid me NIS 10,000 and still owed me 5,000. When I asked for the balance, he threatened to call the police. He had a Subaru. Should I tell you his name? Moshe. He threatened to call the police. I said okay and walked away, like a good boy. I looked at his car, and decided it would be better to steal it. You don't need a great deal of skill to steal a car. I broke the steering wheel lock, connected wires and just drove home. That was three years ago."

How is it three years ago if you were 19?

Munir: "When I was 19, I began learning how to steal. Now I'm an expert. In five minutes, the car is mine. And I also learned Hebrew. At the beginning I helped thieves - I would tell them where a car was located, after noticing cars whose engines were running. Afterward we learned to work with the code [the immobilizer combination - A.H.].

"Now there's no more work. For the past year, year and a half, all of the roads have been closed. How much time do you need to get to Tel Aviv? An hour? I'm there in half an hour. You go 100 kph, I go 200. Not less. When we enter the West Bank, there's always an escort in front, to check out the territory. Once I was driving in a stolen car, with the yellow plates on. The escort drove in front of me. There was a police checkpoint. They stopped my friends in the escort car, and all their papers were in order. And then they stopped me, and asked me where I was going. 'To my grandmother,' I said. 'In Kedumim?' [a Jewish settlement - A.H.] wondered the policeman. 'Are you Jewish?' I said, 'Yes, but Yemenite.'"

Adel: "Your police are imbeciles."

Munir: "No, not imbeciles. They simply don't know the car is stolen. I was stopped by a soldier at the Beit Iba checkpoint, and he didn't let me go through in my own car, which isn't stolen. I asked him: 'What are you so mad about? You look like a good guy.' As a punishment for having been so impudent, he ordered me to walk to the jora [a cage in which the soldiers detain people for a few hours - A. H.]. I told him: 'I'll go, but try to put yourself in my place. I'm 23, have two kids and a wife. What do you gain from me sitting in the jora for five or six hours? If you gain anything, then okay. But if not, then why do it? And I want there to be peace.' So he says to me, 'This has nothing to do with peace,' but in the end he gave me my ID card and sent me home. I spoke with him in Hebrew."

Adel: "All of the car thieves speak Hebrew."

Munir: "I have friends who gave soldiers or military policemen a little marijuana. You people have one policeman, a real bastard - if he catches you in a stolen car, you pay him NIS 2,000 under the table and he lets you go. He brings in his brother-in-law, who says he is the owner of the car, and then releases the car."

Adel: "If you Israelis dealt with the police, we wouldn't be able to work."

Munir: "Once I wanted to go to Hawara on foot. I am under 35 years old and I am not permitted to pass through. 'Do you smoke?' I asked the soldier. He said yes. I gave him a whole box and asked to be let through. He stuck me in a jora for five hours."

Adel: "You can always find someone who will accept baksheesh to let in a stolen car. Right now I am bringing in a car by telephone. What kind of car do you have? Where is it?"

How do people find you, to steal a car by telephone?

Adel: "You're talking about thieves, not ordinary people. And there are Jews who help. Russian girls."

And what does your family think of your occupation?

Adel: "My mother says that God should help me, and I should bring three cars home. My wife knows, too."

But it's dangerous. You could be shot.

Adel: "My wife thinks I work as a taxi driver."

Munir: "My wife doesn't know and my mother is dead. People around me don't know about it."

And the Palestinian police, what about them?

Adel: "They sit around and don't do anything."

But occasionally there are raids to locate stolen cars.

Adel: "So you put the car in a garage for a few days."

A source in the Palestinian police told me that so long as the IDF doesn't permit Palestinian policemen in Nablus to go around with weapons, they cannot take action against the car thieves. Many of the thieves are linked to the armed organizations or even to certain public figures in the Palestinian security forces.

Have you ever been arrested in Israel?

Adel: "How are we going to be arrested if we are paying them?"

Munir: "They don't know that the car is stolen. And if we are arrested for six months and pay a fine, within a day I cover the sum with a single stolen car."

What do you do when the army invades?

Adel: "I stay home and smoke."

Munir: "I have 40 ID cards."

How many cars have you stolen?

Munir: "It's hard to count. Hundreds. The majority with keys. Sometimes I'd bring seven a day, that's when those that gave me the car also provided a key. And sometimes one car in two or three months. I didn't think I'd be a thief, it's just that they didn't give us any room to breathe, with the intifada."

How much do you pay for a forged ID?

Munir: "NIS 1,000."

What was your most dangerous car theft?

Munir: "It was at 12:30 at night. Two years ago. I was driving in a stolen car. I was still on a road in Israel. In front of me I saw flashing police lights on both sides of the road. I realized they knew that a stolen car was coming, and they'd set up a sort of ambush. I slowed down for a second, as if intending to stop, and then I gave the car full gas and drove at the speed of light. Somehow I managed to hide. Twenty police cars arrived on the scene and searched for me until the morning. In the morning, I put on a different yellow license plate and continued driving. Only when I reached the West Bank did I switch to a Palestinian plate, and got in through one of the checkpoints."

But you need a special permit to enter in a car.

Munir: "I could even convince a rock."

Do you have a boss?

Munir: "I work independently. Alone is the best."

Do you have relatives in Israel?

Munir: "No, I have girlfriends. Girls. Yemenites, Iraqis. It's impossible to know that I am an Arab. Forget the stubble on my face right now. If I shave, within an hour I become a Jew."

When was the last time you stole a car?

Munir: "A year ago. I have two daughters at home. If a soldier shot me tomorrow, what would happen to them?"

You're lying to me a little.

Munir: "Sometimes you have to lie. My Russian girlfriend told me that. Nobody knows who my girlfriend is. She's only a colleague - don't get any ideas. I miss going to Israel. Yeah, not for stealing, but for working, like I used to work. I used to make a lot of money."

So why steal, too?

Munir: "What's the problem, if you can make another NIS 10,000 a week?"

With your expertise with cars, did you help in any way in this intifada?

Munir: "You are talking about terrorists? I was asked to bring in arms, I was asked a million times and I refused."

Do people get paid a lot for smuggling arms?

Munir: "There are Jews who bring weapons in here."

I don't believe you've stopped stealing cars.

Munir: "I've stopped."

I don't believe it.

Munir: "I told you - you have to lie."

Does anyone steal here?

Munir: "Stealing from Arabs? We'd get slaughtered on the spot. I've never ever stolen from Arabs. Besides, where are we going to take the car? Everything is closed in on us. It's impossible to get out."