COLUMN ONE : Car Theft a Price of Peace : Arab-Israeli rings spur epidemic of heists in the new Mideast. Greater freedom of movement, high unemployment and big profits fuel rise in crime.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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 business people, officials in the fledgling 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 about the size of New Jersey.

During the first four months of this year, the number of car thefts jumped 44% over the same period last year. In Jerusalem, the figure was 68%.

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--a scenario that gives new meaning to the expression "the price of peace." It is a definite downside to an easing of political tensions that costs the country unmeasured millions of dollars in higher insurance premiums, increased police efforts and time lost by the victims.

"It's a huge problem," said Chief Inspector Boaz Goldberg, spokesman for the special unit of the Judea and Samaria Police 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 Assn. "The industry lost 500 million shekels [$170 million] last year, and that can't go on at this level."

Esther Hecht would certainly agree. Her two-car Jerusalem family was made wheel-less in just a few months last year, even though they took just about every possible precaution.

"Both cars were garaged, had gearshift locks on and had activated alarms," she said. "I don't know how they did it."

Hecht, an editor at a Jerusalem newspaper, eventually bought a cheaper car--but her insurance is more expensive and she is resentful that it is the victims who seem to pay most for the crime.

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Much of what is going on in Israel is not ordinary car theft. It is theft with a Middle East twist and its own political dimension--although, as in Los Angeles and elsewhere, this illegal business more often than not involves a quest for parts rather than for the cars themselves.

Police Lt. Col. Dudu Pereth, who heads the fight against rings of thieves operating from the West Bank areas of Judea and Samaria, likes to draw a mini flowchart for visitors.

The chart begins with Israeli auto repair shops, which place orders for spare parts with ringleaders, usually Palestinians, who dispatch thieves to steal specific makes and models and drive them to the West Bank.

There, teams known as "butchers" descend upon the cars, stripping them in hours. The parts are then quickly loaded onto trucks that deliver them either to clandestine warehouses or directly to auto repair shops at bargain-basement prices.

Because auto parts cost a small fortune in Israel, the illegal trade means big bucks. For example, a door for a Fiat Tempra, which costs about $170 in Italy, costs about $500 in Israel once import duties, taxes and transportation costs are added. One bought from an illegal auto-parts ring would run no more than $35, police estimated.

Sometimes the repair shops pocket the profit themselves. Sometimes they offer the parts on the cheap to customers, then make their money on the labor costs.

In such instances, customers happily ask no questions for repairs that often cost less than the insurance deductible.

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 in January with trying to take a stolen car into the Gaza Strip.

The "butchers" are almost all Palestinians, men such as the 30-year-old father of six who called himself Al Mutarad for this article.

In many ways, Al Mutarad personifies both the current problem and a central long-term challenge of the peace process: replacing the sense of despair felt by many West Bank residents with a future that contains jobs.

A skilled draftsman who worked for 14 years on construction sites in Israel, he said he celebrated the 1993 peace agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization feeling relief and hope.

Gone, he believed, would be the "closures"--security measures taken by Israel during times of tension that prevent Palestinians from crossing to their jobs in Israel from their homes in the West Bank.

Maybe, he thought, the thousands of Romanian, Thai and Turkish foreign workers imported into labor-short Israel would no longer be needed. Peace could even bring jobs to the Palestinian areas, he reasoned.

But when no jobs materialized on the West Bank, the number of foreign workers in Israel increased and terrorist attacks sealed the crossings, Al Mutarad lost his job. He said he had a subsequent offer of work at a construction site near the city of Lod, but was refused a permit by Israeli authorities. Meanwhile, unemployment on the West Bank hit 65%.

"We hoped our lives would get better, but instead they've gotten worse," he said. "There are no jobs, no permits, no nothing. When a father needs to feed his children, he gets desperate."

So about three times a week, usually at night, someone picks him up at home and takes him to a prearranged spot where he tears cars apart as fast as he can. First come the doors, then the internal paneling, dashboard, windshield, seats, lights. Others do the engine. He does not like Toyotas because they have lots of hidden screws and brackets.

"You work fast because you are afraid," he said.

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The components are immediately loaded onto trucks and taken back to Israel. Every so often, the local municipality collects the abandoned remains and ships them to a recycling center in the northern part of the country.

Al Mutarad's take is the equivalent of $35 per car, about 60% of his construction job's daily wage.

"If I had my way, I wouldn't take apart one more car," he said. "I'd rather work in a real job."

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.

In April, Gaza Police Chief Ghazi Jabali estimated 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 kind of control over the situation, Gaza authorities even declared a brief amnesty earlier this year, permitting stolen car "owners" the chance to register and legalize their vehicles. The only catch: They could not resell the cars or drive them into Israeli-controlled areas.

But 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 Japanese-made Daihatsu car that was stolen off a Tel Aviv street two weeks earlier.

While anyone convicted of car theft in Israel faces the prospect of a jail term, sometimes the price is higher.

Last year, an 18-year-old Palestinian was shot and killed as he tried to run an Israeli army checkpoint in a stolen vehicle.

While Israeli police officials claim a recent raid on 15 auto repair shops in Israel has at least 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%, from the 50% figure of 1993.

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And while insurance executive Ben-Shaul is as much for peace as anyone, he shudders to think what will happen when Israel and the PLO launch the second phase of their 1993 agreement--in which several more West Bank towns will probably pass to Palestinian control.

"That's going to make the whole problem worse," he said.

Only occasionally do victims of the crime wave manage to find a degree of solace in their misfortune.

Hecht recalled that the second of her family's stolen cars contained a number of cassette tapes, including one belonging to her teen-age son by a group known as the Swamp Terrorists.

She liked the idea that the thieves might have had to listen to it.

"They deserve it," she said.

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