Do car thieves now threaten Israeli-Palestinian peace

JERUSALEM — For Israelis living along the Green Line, the geography has not changed, but political reality has.

In recent weeks, Israeli troops withdrew from several West Bank towns, leaving these Arab population centers under the control of the Palestinian Authority — and loosening Israel's security grip on these Palestinian towns.

It is therefore no surprise that Jewish residents of neighboring settlements and towns are nervous.

As long as these West Bank towns were in Israeli hands, it seemed as if the Arab neighbors were far away, a remote entity with which Israeli security forces could deal.

But now that the Palestinians have taken control, some feel that the towns and their Arab residents have moved dangerously closer.

"I have 50,000 residents in the Gilo neighborhood" near Bethlehem, said Shmuel Meir, deputy mayor of Jerusalem, voicing a general concern. "I would like to know what's going to happen to them. Do I need to put more guards in the schools? Do I have to open emergency centers?"

Gilo, a neighborhood in southern Jerusalem, is situated close to such Palestinian-controlled areas as Beit Jala and Bethlehem, across the Green Line.

Before the 1967 Six Day War, the Green Line marked the border between Israel and Jordan. Now it separates the West Bank from Israel.

Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert chose his words more carefully than Gilo's deputy mayor, but he seemed just as concerned.

"Undoubtedly the new arrangements turn Jerusalem into a corner city, in the same sense as it had been until '67," he said, referring to Jerusalem's position adjoining the West Bank.

In Gilo, residents are fearfully confronting the new facts on the ground.

In the past, they knew that Israeli soldiers and border police were patrolling the streets of Bethlehem and Beit Jala.

But now, people are wondering how long it will take before a Palestinian sniper takes a position atop a hill in Beit Jala and chooses living targets in the adjacent Jewish neighborhood.

Their fears are not merely a case of mass hysteria. There have been real changes on the ground — and with them, real dangers.

Israeli residents along the Green Line are acutely aware that if any hostilities take place, the Israeli military's hands are tied.

Theoretically, under the terms of Israel's agreements with the Palestinians, Israeli security forces can chase Palestinian perpetrators into areas within the autonomous region.

But in practice, such a scenario is unlikely.

As a general rule, the army wants to stay out of areas it has evacuated — which include Jenin, Tulkarm, Nablus, Kalkilya and Bethlehem and Ramallah.

For the time being, at least, the main problems confronting Israelis from over the Green Line are criminal acts, not terrorism.

The Islamic fundamentalist movements, engaged in intensive negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization about the upcoming Palestinian elections in late January, have taken time out from their terrorist activities.

But now crime against Israeli property has been running high.

Since Israeli troops withdrew from Jenin a month ago, some 90 cars owned by Israelis were stolen and taken there.

According to recent statistics, one car is stolen in Israel every 10 minutes. Not all of them are taken from Israelis living along the Green Line, of course, but this is where the problem is centered.

Thieves drive the cars across the Green Line into the West Bank, were the cars are professionally dismantled and their parts sold on the local market for a good profit.

And cars are not the only items being looted.

Everything that can be stolen from Jewish homes along the new front, from chickens to television sets, finds its way to the other side of the Green Line.

In a recent television interview, a resident of the Alfei Menashe settlement, located just over a mile inside the West Bank from the Green Line, recalled how she had seen a Palestinian youth coming out of her house with a television set.

As she yelled at him to return the television, the boy teased her: "Come and get me. Why don't you come and get me?" and disappeared toward a neighboring Arab village.

This new source of tension along the Green Line does as much damage to the Palestinians as to their Israeli neighbors — if not more.

More and more Israeli farmers are using Thais as farm laborers to replace Palestinians workers.

And Israeli shoppers are wary of crossing the Green Line to visit markets in Palestinian towns.

Palestinian merchants in the town of Kalkilya, located a short distance east of the Israeli town of Kfar Sava, went out of their way to prove that Israelis' hesitancy was groundless.

They invited journalists to visit the "liberated" town to prove that Israelis could move freely there. For Israeli shoppers from neighboring Kfar Sava would mean an economic boom.

In contrast, the absence of Israelis means more hard economic times.

To help ensure security for Jews living on the West Bank, a network of new bypass roads was completed hastily in recent weeks.

But Israeli cars traveling the new road from Jerusalem to Hebron, bypassing Bethlehem, were stoned in recent days — a sharp reminder of the Palestinian stone-throwers from the days of the Palestinian uprising.

"The bypasses will cut down potential confrontation," said Zvi Katzover, mayor of Kiryat Arba, located near Hebron.

"But they are no insurance policies. The roads are not fenced, and they are also open for the use of the Palestinian population."

Pinchas Wallerstein, mayor of the regional council of Matte Binyamin, said he was considering purchasing a helicopter to evacuate Israeli victims of terrorist attacks.

But are the prospects for Israeli-West Bank relations really so gloomy?

With public attention so preoccupied with the new realities along the Green Line, Gaza City has long been forgotten.

The city that used to be — and may still be — the heart of Palestinian terrorism is surprisingly quiet.

True, it is easier to patrol the line between the Gaza Strip and Israel than the Jewish state's border with the West Bank, which can be crossed at hundreds of points.

But a strong case can be made using Gaza as an example that security arrangements, albeit complicated and not foolproof, can be effective.

More than a few would argue that if the price of normalization with the Palestinians is more car thefts and less terrorism, it may not be such a bad deal after all.