Analysis: License Plates For Stolen Cars in Gaza

All Things Considered: February 25, 2005

An Odd Hierarchy of License Plates in Gaza





ROBERT SIEGEL reporting:

Sometimes when you you're traveling in this divided and often chaotic place, real life is stranger than the movies.

SOUNDBITE OF CITY TRAFFIC

SIEGEL: Last week, as we were riding through the streets of Gaza, our interpreter, Hosam Arhoun(ph), pointed out something that is, so far as we know, unique to that isolated strip of Mediterranean coast. It's a kind of license plate.

SOUNDBITE OF CITY TRAFFIC

SIEGEL: I thought he was kidding. We would be behind a car, and he would say, `See that pair of Arabic letters on the tag? That indicates this is a stolen car. And that one,' he said, `that's an official stolen car.'

Well, we dropped in on Raeed el-Sa'ati, who owns the Ekhlas Driving School in Gaza, to get more details. And he explained that Gaza license plates can be red for official, green for taxis, and white for private vehicles. The lower the number on the red plates, the higher the position of the official. The number 30 designates a truck.

All this is pretty conventional stuff for license plates. But then...

Mr. RAEED EL-SA'ATI (Ekhlas Driving School): (Through Translator) And then the cars which, written in Arabic, the letters M and F, it is the stolen cars.

SIEGEL: The stolen cars?

Mr. EL-SA'ATI: (Through Translator) And then there is these plates which, M-H-F--it is stolen cars, but working at the authority, means, aha, it is a stolen governmental car. There's also another kind, but this is the same plates; the numbers are different. The numbers which started with 25, it is a stolen car, but it is allowed to work as taxis. This is a very modern law in the world.

SIEGEL: As you can hear, our man Hosam could hardly stop laughing as he translated this.

It turns out this system is a legacy of the most efficient but embarrassing example of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation in the 1990s: auto theft. The Palestinian Authority took over Gaza, and the Israeli police were out, so Israeli car thieves fenced thousands of stolen cars into the Gaza Strip, about 15,000 of them, where they were then sold. Thousands are driven by Palestinian security and other officials. A lot of them are in that stolen taxicab category, vehicles that provide income while costing a lot less than a legal yellow minivan.

When their cars were stolen, the Israeli car owners would get reimbursed by their insurance, and they would go buy new cars. So in effect, Israeli insurance companies were paying for Gaza's used car trade. When the insurance companies sued, the Palestinian Authority settled, and the settlement cost was offset in part by much higher registration fees for cars that had been stolen. So to designate those cars, they were given special license plates. According to the Transportation Department in Gaza, the news is that the Authority has decided in principle to end stolen car plates. Everyone will pay the same registration fees. But 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.'

MICHELE NORRIS (Host): You can hear all of our stories from this week's special look at the Middle East at our Web site, npr.org. You'll also find photos, maps and background on the politics of the region.

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