|Many of the stolen cars are painted cab-yellow and used as taxis [GALLO/GETTY]|
In Jenin’s industrial zone, a strip of car part shops and garages stand idle as workers pass the time with endless cups of coffee and cigarettes.
Business took a sharp decline a few years ago, when the second intifada put a halt to the stream of Israeli customers. But recently, these garages took another hit.
Palestinian Authority police have been confiscating stolen cars in Jenin, taking thousands of vehicles off this northern West Bank city’s streets – and removing a hefty source of trade from the city’s car mechanics.
“We support the law, but when the police took those cars away, they took our work away and didn’t bring us any alternative,” says 30-year-old Mohammad, who works at one of the garages.
Around the now quieter streets of Jenin, this is a common complaint. One 57-year-old is using his son’s small push bike as transport and keeps his car – used to earn a living as a driver – out of sight of the police: “It’s difficult to cycle – I’m an old man, not a boy!” he says.
Since the policy came into full effect in January, 2,200 cars have been confiscated in Jenin district, which has a population of around 35,000.
“Stolen cars are a primary campaign because they cause accidents,” says Jenin police chief commander, Wasem al-Jayous, pointing out that three people were killed and 27 injured in stolen car-related traffic accidents in the city this year.
Feeling the pinch
Brought from Israel and costing a fraction of the price of a legally purchased vehicle, stolen cars were frequently driven by teenage joy-riders. But more often, the cars were painted cab-yellow and, with Israeli license plates swapped for Palestinian ones, were indistinguishable from bona fide taxis.
“Before the campaign, there was no law on the streets and driving was dangerous,” says Ra’id, who works for a cab firm in a western neighbourhood of Jenin.
“Some of us sold our cars and stopped working, because of the stolen cars. Now we all noticed after the campaign that we are working more than in the past.”
Apart from being a noisy road hazard, the stolen cars were disliked because Israel has used them in the past to plant bombs aimed at Palestinian militants. But they became a vital part of the economy in Jenin.
“People don’t believe in stealing or buying stolen cars but the economic situation forced them to use these cars,” says Ala, from Jenin Camp. “Many young people can’t find jobs and started using stolen cars to work as drivers, or just for transport.”
Now that the cars have been confiscated, crushed into scrap cubes and sent to a Jericho metal factory, Jenin’s residents are feeling the pinch.
“Hundreds of people have been left without work,” says Ala. “We people thought that the government would find alternatives, establish an economy, build factories – but we found out that it just wants to apply the law.”
Such disappointment permeates a wider analysis of the recently beefed up PA police force. On the one hand, Jenin residents express satisfaction. “All of us like system and order,” says Mohammad Jowadri, 50.
“We have seen many improvements. All the old fights have stopped, all the crimes of the past are being taken to court. We feel more security than before.”
But many Palestinians feel that their police force has limited powers – a problem that Jenin’s police chief commander is the first to point out. “The Israelis try their best to interfere with our jobs,” he says, pointing out that in the past four months, Israeli troops have raided Jenin 64 times, resulting in 32 arrests, and 14 injuries.
“If there is a crime, [the PA police] have to contact Israelis and get permission to move from area A to B or C, and by the time they send permission the criminal has escaped,” he says, adding that the Israeli army has blocked the passage of essential police equipment into Jenin.
Such Israeli army measures have met with criticism internationally. At a recent Berlin conference seeking to bolster the Palestinian police, Western officials expressed frustration with what they described as Israel’s failure to co-operate with efforts to create a strong Palestinian police force.
Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the coordinator of government operations in the Palestinian Territories, says that security and the coordination of PA police movement “are taking place according to agreements between the three parties – Israeli, the US and the Palestinian Authority”.
Israeli officials have in the past pointed out that during the second intifada that broke out in 2000, armed Fatah forces turned against Israel.
But frustration over the state of the police is keenly felt on the ground in Jenin, where many residents are discussing the Israeli army raids of a city hall, mosques and a shopping centre in Nablus last week.
“If the occupation forces can still come and do whatever they like in the West Bank, where is the security?” asks Ala. “Instead of putting thousands of Israeli soldiers here, they are just using the Palestinian police as a tool, to do their job.”