QATANEH, West Bank — There’s nothing unusual about Abu Abdullah’s white Ford Fiesta, at first glance. It’s a little beat-up and the tires are bald, but it’s a fine vehicle for a young man working in construction.
But take a closer look.
The 1993 four-door hatchback, which cost Abu Abdullah just $250, has Israeli license plates, a little out of place in a Palestinian village like this. On the back, there is an array of Hebrew bumper stickers, some with Israeli political slogans and even one dedicated to a long-dead Jewish spiritual leader — more signals that something is awry.
Finally, the plain little car is conspicuously missing its road-tax sticker for this year. The last one on the windshield is from 2015.
It’s clear: The car is a “mashtub.”
The Arabic word literally means scrap, but these days, in West Bank slang, it refers to a car once owned by an Israeli citizen. The car could have been stolen from Israel, but it’s more likely to have been deemed not roadworthy and consigned to be demolished or sold for scrap.
Somehow, it never made it to the scrap yard or the crusher and has instead ended up in the West Bank, part of an illegal secondhand-car industry flourishing here in rural Palestinian villages.
“Everyone I know drives a mashtub,” said Abu Abdullah, using his traditional Arab nickname for fear of arrest. “We live on a mountainside. We can’t very well walk back and forth. And these are the only cars we can afford.”
Israeli and Palestinian authorities say thousands of mashtub cars are being used in the West Bank. The problem has existed for years but has recently assumed a new urgency for both sides; despite the gulf between them on other issues, they appear as one in their determination to stamp it out.
For the Israelis, whether the police or the soldiers who patrol the West Bank, the cars are a problem because they are increasingly being used in terrorist attacks on Israeli targets.
According to Col. Roman Goffman, army commander of the brigade responsible for the West Bank area south of Jerusalem where numerous attacks have taken place in the past 18 months, 90 percent of such incidents across the territory have involved these illegal cars.
For the Palestinian police, the mashtub cars are a headache because they often wind up being used in criminal acts in Palestinian Authority areas. Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah launched a campaign several months ago designed to crack down on them.
In both scenarios, because the cars no longer officially exist and are not registered to any individual, they are impossible to track. They are the perfect getaway cars.
Then there is their role in auto fatalities. More Israelis and Palestinians die every year in accidents on West Bank roads than in violence stemming from the decades-old conflict between the two peoples.
“These cars are not meant to be on the road,” said Israeli police superintendent Barak Arussi, whose beat covers the Hebron Hills area in the southern West Bank. Israeli police in the West Bank are working closely with their Palestinian counterparts to track down and demolish mashtub cars, he said.
“Its time-consuming,” Arussi said. “It means stopping and checking all cars that look suspicious.”
They look for the red flags, he said: Palestinians driving cars with Israeli license plates or bumper stickers. Sometimes, the giveaway is more glaring: In one case that Arussi recalled, a car was a Toyota in the front and a Honda in back.
Farouq A. Rahmin, director general of the Palestinian car-licensing authority in Ramallah, said the under-the-radar vehicles are “a bad social phenomenon.”
“There are many accidents because of these cars, not to mention crimes and security issues,” he said.
Although Rahmin argued that the onus is on Israel to stop the cars from reaching the West Bank, since they must be driven through an Israeli military checkpoint to get there, Palestinian officials are cooperating. Finding them is difficult, he said, but “when we do find them, we immediately destroy them.”
That is what happened in Qataneh two months ago.
Abu Mohammed, a villager who asked that his real name not be used because he feared arrest, recalled waking up early one morning to the sound of metal being crushed. Palestinian police officers had arrived with a bulldozer and were destroying any cars they believed were mashtub.
“They didn’t even check the cars properly, they just destroyed everything in their path,” said Abu Mohammed. His car, along with about 50 others, was destroyed that day. The only ones saved belonged to people who had left for work.
For many of Qataneh’s 13,000 residents, owning an old Israeli car is the only way to get around, Abu Mohammed said. The town is nestled deep in a valley, with houses flowing up a steep hillside, and most of the roads are dirt paths with potholes. Public transport is almost nonexistent, and purchasing a legal car — new or used — is almost out of the question.
“Secondhand cars in Palestine are very expensive. They cost at least five times more than secondhand Israeli cars, and anyway, we are no longer allowed to buy Israeli cars,” Abu Mohammed said.
As for a new car, he said, “most of us can’t legally work in Israel, where salaries are higher, and in the West Bank we can only earn about $55 a day.”
He and the other mashtub owners blame the Palestinian Authority for the problem, saying its exorbitant taxes on legal cars leave them with little choice.
But aren’t the illegal cars dangerous?
“Most of the cars they bring from Israel are perfectly fine,” Abu Mohammed said. “We just patch them up and use them.”
“Even if the police find them and destroy them, they are so cheap it doesn’t matter,” he added. “It’s a chance we are willing to take.”