Abdel Rahman sat on a sand dune near the northern borders of the Gaza Strip, looking around the vast expanses of land that was once the Jewish settlement Eli Sinai. He moved his sight northwards over to the distant Israeli city of Ashkelon, and released a sigh.
“This area was my main base of operations. We were very rich, but the fighting brought our business to its knees,” he said.
Abdel Rahman once headed a large car theft ring in Gaza. He said he was not afraid of Palestinian and Israeli law enforcements. He said his “business” brought benefits to both sides and supported many families along the way.
Stealing Israeli cars and smuggling them to Gaza emerged notably after the signing of the Oslo peace accords in 1993 and the inception of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1994. The accords created what car thieves describe as a safe haven for them to retreat with their bounty.
“We started in early 1994,” he said, “when Palestinians flooded freely into Israel with the prospects of peace. We brought back a steady stream of late-model vehicles, for personal use, for resale, for chop shops, and - for the luxury cars at least - shiny limos for [Palestinian] VIPs.”
Stealing cars was noticeably different from other countries.
“We had Jewish and Arab accomplices inside Israel who compiled a list of cars for us to steal. It was a win-win situation; car owners reported their cars as stolen and get a new one from the Israeli insurance company, and we get our cars.”
His ring included Israeli army officers. They would, for a commission, facilitate the flow of stolen cars from Israel into either the permeable borderline with the West Bank or through the Erez Checkpoint, which is the only entry point into the Gaza Strip from Israel.
However, even with the presence of military accomplices, smuggling cars into Gaza was not easy.
“We would have to bury the cars in a truck, under a load of sand or building materials, and then depend on our accomplices to pass these trucks with little or no searching,” he said.
Some Gazans do not regard this activity as wrong. University student Latif Abdel Hadi said that auto theft was profitable for both the thieves and the victims, and that Palestinians did not care, because thieves did not touch their own cars - they were stealing from Israelis.
“Through our Israeli contacts, who were also dealing with car thieves inside, we were able to give them whatever details a client would ask for in his car-to-be. They would deliver it inside PA-held areas within two to three days,” Abdel Rahman explained.
He also noted that he did some jobs for renowned Palestinian security officials - whom he refused to name - who have requested exotic cars or special high-end jeeps.
Car thieves fenced some 15,000 stolen vehicles into the Gaza Strip. Thousands are driven by Palestinian security and other officials. A lot of them are working as taxicabs, which provide income while costing a lot less in registration and licensing fees than a legal yellow cab.
For these reasons, the PA found itself providing the legal cover for these cars - though clearly labeling them as stolen in the license plates.
Saad Humeid, a driver of stolen taxi, said he bought his 1998 Mercedes from a car thief who brought it from Israel in 1999. He went to the vehicle registration office in Gaza and licensed it as stolen - indicated by a license plate with the black initials M and F in Arabic; stolen and Palestinian respectively.
Cars put to work for PA officials and security services were given the same license plates but with red initials and an additional H - indicating government.
But the lucrative auto theft didn’t last for long - the number of stolen cars rapidly decreased when the Intifada broke out in September 2000.
“The Intifada brought with it many changes. Borders were closed shut and mutual relations became tense, and we were unable to smuggle anything through the borders because tanks and military patrols were everywhere in fear of infiltrators and weapon smugglers,” Abdel Rahman said.
“Anyone seen near the borders was shot at without warning. It became a no-man zone and we were suddenly out of work.”
Facing the Israeli military and lawsuits by angered insurance companies, the PA had to settle with the companies and work to end the stolen car industry, offsetting the large and undisclosed sum of the settlement by increasing registration fees for stolen cars.
This signaled the end of Abdel Rahman’s business, and a probable shift to other forms of business until the industry return back to its feet.
Back on that sand dune in northern Gaza Strip, Abdel Rahman said he was optimistic following the Gaza pullout, even though borders were still closed and Israeli army was well established around Gaza and throughout the West Bank.
“This move by Israel might represent a good opportunity for us to return to our former business, unless the [Palestinian] Authority decides to enforce the law and ban stolen cars from being used in the Palestinian territories,” he said.
But it seems a long way yet to keep the stolen cars off the road, according to an employee at Gaza’s transportation department. He said that since this may put a lot of self-employed taxi drivers out of work, no one is saying how long it will take to abolish the license plate that says, `This car was stolen.’
When asked about his current line of business, Abdel Rahman replied with a grin, “It is something not related to cars.”
Yasser Abu Moailek is a freelance journalist and translator living in Gaza Strip. He contributes news items and feature stories to several news agencies around the world and has worked with foreign media outlets and NGOs in the Gaza Strip.