This article was originally published in the February 2006 issue of Moment.
Living in Israel has always been difficult, trying to eke out a living as an immigrant without relatives amid the burdens of heavy taxes, army reserve duty and terrorism. But when someone stole General Lee one night, life took an intolerable turn. The “General” was my 15-year-old, open roof Suzuki jeep that had been my dependable partner for as long as I have been the defense correspondent for The Jerusalem Post, always starting on the first go and taking me from Gaza to Lebanon.
It was also my mascot—I had decorated it with memorabilia from my youth in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, where my old man, an Irish Catholic who converted to Judaism and moved the family to Israel, was once the chief of police.
While you can take the boy out of Mississippi, you can’t take Mississippi out of the boy. My jeep had a red and white Rebel Flag on the back spare tire and a plastic statue of General Robert E. Lee stuck on the dash, making it most likely the only Confederate shrine in the Middle East. That didn’t mean I was a member of the KKK. It was a shrine to the way the Mississippi Gulf Coast produced a unique sort of Jew.
General Lee was the car I polished and caressed and babied. The car that found no task too daunting. It was the jeep into which I could pile the missus, three kids and dog and strap on crates to its makeshift luggage rack and head to the desert for a night of mindless stargazing.
And somebody had had the chutzpah to steal my jeep from in front of my house. A decade ago, we had joined about 200 families and built a new village in the forested hills above the Elah Valley: nice modest villas surrounded by vineyards and olive groves in central Israel. Every now and then thieves would steal a car, but I never thought they’d set their sights on the old General.
Were they Palestinians? Bedouins? Jews? Or (good gracious) damn Yankees?!
“Forget about it,” a police officer told me. General Lee was likely deep in the West Bank, a region to which Israelis have long stopped venturing. “Probably already in a chop shop.”
But I couldn’t get the uninsured jeep out of my head and decided to take matters into my own hands. I’d heard stories of people buying back their cars from thieves but had always suspected they were nothing more than urban myths. Nevertheless, I spread a wide net, telephoning every Palestinian tour guide, journalist, garage owner and grave robber I ever knew. I even telephoned Jabril Rajoub, the National Security Adviser for the Palestinian Authority whom I had visited in Ramallah a few days before. The so-called Palestinian strong man promised to get my jeep back and made a big show of contacting the Hebron police commander, Jabril Bakri, and ordering him to find General Lee and return him to me immediately. Yada. Yada. Nada.
The weekend following the disappearance of the General, I worked in the garden, but I could think of nothing else. Anyone who has ever had a vehicle stolen knows the seething sense of loss. After all, grown men, let’s face it, are really grown babies. Clippers in hand, I imagined what I would have done if I’d caught the thief. I imagined how I’d have tied him to the gate of our little village—sans thumbs—and invited press photographers to see how we treated thieves in our beautiful and flowering valley.
Two days passed and I got a midnight call from a friend, a former agent from the Israeli Antiquities Authority. The whole underworld is only two degrees removed from everyone. My buddy knew Arab ancient grave robbers, who knew car thieves, who knew car thieves who were holding General Lee . They were Palestinians in the Hebron hills and they were willing to sell it back. The catch was that I had to deliver the cash personally to an area fraught with danger for a Jew.
I have a loving wife and three beautiful children. But male idiocy and warped automobile fetishism drove me to risk my life for that scruffy jeep.
“Dude, be careful, man. This is risky,” said a good friend and veteran journalist.
I thought maybe I could get the police to set up a trap, but a police officer friend I confided in quickly talked me out of that, saying there was no way to prosecute.
“Even if you catch them, they say their name is Mohammed. Go find who is the real Mohammed and it’s impossible to prove they stole it.
“Officially I’m supposed to warn you against going there,” he told me. “And if you do, then don’t go deep into the village. If the Hamas or Islamic Jihad fellows hear there’s a Jew about, they’ll slit your throat.”
My buddy volunteered to take me there himself, saying his friend Yusef the grave robber would protect us. I tucked the cash, wrapped in a rubber band, inside my windbreaker pocket and zipped it tight. I commandeered my wife’s Peugeot minivan and we set out to retrieve General Lee. I left her standing in angst as I set off on what in her eyes was a senseless risk of life… for what? An old jalopy! I shrugged. Women really are from Venus.
We drove south, past the kibbutzim and their orderly fertile fields and thick forests toward the naked badlands of the western edges of the West Bank. I steered the Peugeot—which usually hauled groceries and lads—onto dirt tracks and headed in, passing a number of Palestinian villages until we reached Beit Mersim. The village is a remote, stony place without running water or electricity. It is a pure ecological settlement: the Third World less than an hour’s drive from my so-called ecological home with cable TV and air conditioning and irrigated lawn.
I was nervous. We parked the Peugeot in the wadi and walked up the slopes to the stone house. The view was of the whole world. The villagers of Beit Mersim sat up there watching anyone who came within 20 kilometers and they had been watching us.
Yusef, a chubby and cheerful Palestinian, greeted us, kissing my buddy on both cheeks and shaking my hand. The women were quickly shuffled out of sight; water drawn from a well and the first of endless cups of coffee and tea began to flow.
The walls of Yusef’s single-room stone house were bare except for a framed photograph of a young Arab woman in a camouflage uniform.
“My sister,” explained Yusef. “Her fiance was in an Israeli prison for security offenses and she waited for him for ten years. When he finally got out they were married, but on the night of the wedding he slit her throat. Why? Because he suspected she had been unfaithful.”
Just like that, in three sentences, a little story with the potential of a great tragic film. In fact, every minute of this crazy adventure bore the fruit of melodrama.
Eventually, “Fu-Fu,” a green-eyed, smiling middleman appeared—a guy in his mid-20s with rotting teeth and a gold watch.
“First the money, then the jeep,” he said, explaining how he had to purchase the jeep from the thieves in Hebron. “I’m not making anything out of this,” he assured me.
“Yeah, right,” I thought, beginning to suspect monkey business. I was sure palms were greased as General Lee passed from hand to hand. I swallowed my fury watching him thumb the colorful shekel bills. He sat there in that beautiful light reminding me of the painting of the girl with the pearl earring and smiled back at me when he’d counted all 7,500 shekels ($1,650).
“How do I know you just aren’t going to split with the cash?” I asked.
“On my honor, you can trust me,” he said, eyebrows raised in disbelief.
“Of course,” I said quickly, making sure to avoid insult so soon in the transaction. “But what happens if you get robbed and beaten?”
Fu-Fu assured me he was capable of defending himself and my money.
I had no choice. I had placed myself in the trust of people who I was not sure understood the meaning of the word. But Fu-Fu insisted there was honor among thieves.
He set out for Hebron to trade my money for my jeep. He said he’d be back in an hour.
In a tiny windswept village on the edge of nowhere, there are few secrets. Word of our presence spread and a small gathering of thieves and grave robbers dropped by, including one dressed like Osama bin Laden.
I made sure to sit facing the door. Speaking half in Hebrew, half in Arabic, our conversations moved from the local Shin Bet informants and CIA agents to demolished houses and grave robbing. Outside, children were rolling wheels with a stick and whooping like Indians. Inside, I thought any one of these men could be a killer—a member of Hamas or another terrorist cell—praising Allah for delivering this Jew. Just in case, I had slipped on my father’s old belt with the hidden dagger in the buckle. I fingered it often for reassurance.
I have flown in fighter jets, parachuted with kings, interviewed armed terrorist thugs and been under rocket and gunfire numerous times covering wars around the world. But sitting helplessly in the den of Palestinian car thieves was a risk as great as any I had ever imagined.
Outside, the children stopped rolling the wheels and began tossing on the ground what looked like clay balls. Homemade lawn bowling, I thought, how quaint.
“Ah, those,” said Yusef. “They’re ancient Canaanite weights we dug up.” Beit Mersim lies near a site that had been excavated in the 1930s by the eminent archaeologist W. F. Albright, and the ancient artifacts unearthed from that site have provided the villagers with a source of sustenance ever since. “The merchants didn’t want them,” added Yusef. “Would you like them?”
After lying undisturbed for 4,500 years, the weights were now being shattered by bored kids. It would have been rude to decline. So now I was Indiana Jones, only I was being taken for the ride.
Yusef hefted a sackfull of ancient weights and other artifacts into my wife’s car, around which about a half dozen car thieves gathered with great interest. They popped open the hood and laughed at how easy it was to hotwire these days.
“Can you please stop starting the car?” I pleaded nervously, jingling the car keys in my pocket to make sure they were still there.
“Once, I was in Beersheba,” said Nadir, a man in his late 30s with a stylish Elvis haircut. “I was looking for a car to steal at the shopping mall and this Jew asked if I was the valet. I nodded and he tossed me his keys!” He laughed, revealing the few teeth still left in his mouth.
Every 20 minutes my wife would call my cellular phone—”Nu?”—and I’d stall her with promises we’d be wrapping it up any minute now. Every half hour Fu-Fu would call from his cellular phone to give us an update: The thieves moved the jeep to another village to avoid a trap. He finally had it but had to return via back paths to dodge Israeli Defense Force roadblocks. Then, nothing. Nadir grew concerned that Fu-Fu may have gone through a village which had a blood-feud with theirs.
I kept peering over the landscape for my blue jeep. My belly was bursting from the coffee. The wind howled. Nothing. After about three hours came the food: maklube, a mountain of rice topped with chicken and cauliflower and no plates, thus making it a communal four-finger affair. Belching was welcomed, even encouraged.
Meanwhile, every now and then a car zoomed by from over the Israeli border. One van, its back doors flapping open and shut, leaped into the air and landed with a thud. “That one is just now stolen,” giggled Nadir. I laughed. Everyone laughed.
More hours passed, hours of coffee, tea and maklube, hours of antiquities and jokes. Th e grayness of it all bothered me. I sought a black and white world where it was easy to hate car thieves. I started to think these guys were okay. They were larger-than-life characters, especially Nadir and his Elvis Presley haircut. We talked about the Sabbath and dybbuks, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and how they saw us as primitive racists.
One man commented on the silliness of tearing up toilet paper for the Jews before the Sabbath when he worked at an Israeli hospital. My hosts had little respect for the Bedouin as well.
“They are all thieves and drug addicts,” said the man who looked like Osama bin Laden.
“Can’t work with their hands,” interjected Yusef. “One Palestinian is equal to five Bedouin laborers.”
The Bedouin, they explained, have three or four wives each, including Palestinian women, whom they buy for 70,000 shekels ($15,400). But once a Palestinian woman is sold, they added, she is never allowed to return to her village.
Perched in the mountaintops of the West Bank, they knew everything, especially everything about us. They knew the names of the local police commanders and who drove which vehicle in each of our villages.
“How can I change this?” I asked.
“You can’t. If you don’t like it, then find someplace else to live,” said Elvis.
Yusef said he dreamed of turning his one-room house into a restaurant for Israeli yuppies who might be convinced to cross over the frontier in their fancy jeeps on weekends for maklube; maybe sell them a few antiquities to boot.
Perhaps, in a different time, I told him. Most Israelis are currently more interested in getting the security fence finished to keep out terrorists and thieves than in visiting Palestinians and learning about their culture.
Two visions will never leave my memory. One is the sight of the empty spot on the street when I saw that General Lee had been stolen. The second came at dusk in this Palestinian village when Fu-Fu finally came tearing around a stone house in General Lee. We all ran to greet him. My heart was beating fast. The jeep looked like it had been dipped in mud. The Confederate Flag was gone (go figure). Someone had snapped off the statue of General Lee. Only his boots remained.
“Hey, I put in 50 shekels for fuel,” said Fu-Fu with his palm extended.
“Catch me next time,” I said, trying to turn it into a joke. Besides, I had no more cash.
Suddenly, I wanted to get the hell out of there. My buddy took my wife’s car. I got behind the wheel of the jeep.
There was no ignition, so I had to jump-start the jeep with two wires.
Driving away, I was overcome with what felt like immense joy, brought on by a natural rush of dopamine. I couldn’t help thinking, “This is brilliant,” even as I told myself I’m no thrill seeker—just a father and husband who wanted to get his jeep back.
Now General Lee gets chained to the tree and locked down every night with a Denver Boot.
Was rescuing General Lee worth the risk? I don’t know, but two weeks after my ordeal, an Israeli couple was shot dead by Palestinian gunmen on the road to the same village.