It’s not a simple thing to part from one’s car, as anyone knows who’s ever had to undergo this experience, whether through selling it for upgrading purposes or whether through traumatic circumstances: a lien, theft, or an accident God forbid. The car, a quiet and (generally) reliable partner, has stood by our side all through all lives, from the days of making out in the back seat and sleepless nights and days with Gerber-dripping offspring in safety seats in the exact same place.

How stinging therefore is the sense of powerless that so many of us feel, that sense we feel when faced with an empty parking space, which just a day earlier was occupied by the beloved that is no longer. 71 Israeli citizens, in the course of the last 36 days since Operation Protective Wall began, were privileged to get an unexpected phone call, with the gladdening and somewhat imaginary news: your stolen car, dear citizen, the one you considered lost forever, has been found by a special police force in the heart of Area A, and is now on its way back to its heartbroken owner. The latter are asked to come at once to the police car lot in Talpiot, Jerusalem, for the heartwarming reunion.

However, the excitement citizens feel who yearn for their wheels is short-lived, and in most cases, turns into despondency upon reaching the crowded lot. A collection of ripped metal, piled one almost on top of the other, leaves no room for doubt. The owner has to be twice lucky to go from there home and not to the nearest garage, whether for a total overhaul or to be dismantled, melted down or crushed.

Ask Dudu Yisrael, 28, from Beer Sheva. His Fiat Uno, which was returned to him a few days ago, is at this time parked near the home of his Jerusalem relatives. The worn brakes, the electricity system that doesn’t work and the torn tires are just some of its symptoms.

“Do you have a cheap tow truck for me?” he asked us, testimony to his car’s mechanical and cosmetic condition, which was liberated by troops on the northern outskirts of Ramallah a moment before being chopped for parts.

“Quite a few cars were almost totally destroyed,” said Yuval Hadar, in charge of the Talpiot lot where the cars were brought, this week. “The hardest cases are those cars that were caught in the course of a chase, that usually ends in an accident or a crash. In addition, car turnover in the Palestinian Authority is very high for various reasons, and the owners, who keep them only for a short time, treat them accordingly – they drive them in the mountains, through the fields, and just don’t care. Some wanted men change their cars every week, the heavies even every three days.

You don’t expect them to take care of them, do you?”

The idea of going into the Palestinian Authority and of returning stolen cars came up in the Judea and Samaria police meeting rooms as soon as Operation Protective Wall began and was implemented thanks to cooperation between the police, the army and the sappers, who checked the cars before they were loaded and taken back home. Police figures show that almost all of the cars were taken to the insurance companies, because the owners had already been paid the insurance money. But some car owners, who had not been compensated because they did not own a comprehensive insurance policy, had their cars returned.

One of these owners is Nissim Yosef, 25, of Pisgat Zeev, whose Subaru was stolen one night last February, and who received a surprising phone call from the police. Yosef: “For me it was like winning the lottery, both because I wasn’t insured, and mainly because I just really missed my car.”

Question: What condition was it in?

“Let’s start by saying that there was a large red keffiya on the dashboard. The gear stick was wrapped in plastic. There were an enormous number of tapes in Arabic inside all over, and someone had ruined the radio-CD player. Instead they put in something else with wires sticking out all over, and huge speakers in the trunk. Actually I listened to some of the tapes, some were pretty good.”

Question: The police say that all sorts of things happened to these cars.

“Like what?”

Question: Some were used by senior PA officials, some were used to move wanted men in the trunk and some were used as escape cars.

“Well, as far as that goes, I don’t have to worry, since there’s no way any senior PA official would dare show their face in a car like mine. As for the trunk, this was a coupe and in these models, almost the entire back is exposed and no one can be hidden there. And chases? I wouldn’t think so, with the noise my engine makes and how it heats up, they wouldn’t get too far. But I noticed that they changed my engine and you know, ever since it got back, I think the brakes work a lot better too.”

Citizen Yosef is not the only one who thinks himself lucky. A.G., also of Jerusalem and the owner of a Hyundai stolen just a month and a half ago, was called one afternoon and rushed over to Talpiot. “I was very curious to see what had happened to my car, and when I saw it, I went into shock. I couldn’t say anything for a long time.”

Question: What had happened?

“The entire car had been painted a lemony yellow, and it turned out that they had made it into a taxi. It’s funny, it had been full of scratches and I was thinking of taking it to a body shop, but I had never thought of painting it, certainly not this yellow.”

Besides taxis, some cars were also made into official cars and were used by various senior functionaries in the Palestinian Authority. These cars, usually a Mazda 626 (a real status symbol in Ramallah) came back full of accessories and were beautifully polished. “One Mazda that came here that was used by a very senior and well known official,” said a worker in the police lot. “It was accessorized to the last detail and it was in shape as good as new. Of course there were no pictures of shahids stuck on the dashboard, like in other cars. I waited to see who it belonged it, but the insurance company came and took it. I felt sorry for the original owner who probably would have been very happy to have gotten it back.”

In addition to the relative economic consolation resulting from this operation, senior police sources also note the need to deter and to punish in those areas that until not long ago were considered inaccessible. That is why, in the course of the operation, they not only collected stolen cars, but also were also strict about arresting their new owners.

Dep. Cmdr. Itzik Rahamim, commander of the Binyamin police station: “As far as stolen Jewish property, what goes on in Area A is complete lawlessness. My rough and unauthorized estimation is that about half of the cars there are stolen. The industry of stealing cars and making them Palestinian is so entrenched, it’s hard to believe sometimes how easily it’s done.”

Question: Do you intend to make more of these kind of operations to return stolen cars?

“It’s not just up to us. We can only take action inside PA areas when the army is there, and as it looks today, this is not going to happen frequently, certainly not permanently. If we can, we’ll act, and with vigor. After all, everyone knows that stealing cars is a real plague and hurts everyone and affects the economy in general. If this action or similar ones in the future can make even a small change or deter the other side and the number of thefts go down even a little, then we’ve done something.”

This account ran in the Yediot Aharonot paper on May 3, 2002