Thieves drive Mercedes into the ground

Israel has not found much oil beneath its surface, but a group of determined citizens is planning to search for a treasure of another kind beneath the sands of the adjoining Sinai desert.

The treasure: buried stolen Mercedes automobiles.

Some 180 owners of missing Mercedes-Benzes gathered in Tel Aviv, Israel, this month to organize the search for their vehicles, many of which are believed to be hidden beneath Sinai dunes.

The vehicles, most of them taxis, allegedly have been buried by Bedouin nomads who hope to uncover them when Israel completes its withdrawal from Sinai in two years.

Over the past year, police and army patrols have uncovered more than 180 stolen vehicles in northern Sinai, most of them buried under the sands. More than 30 have been uncovered in the past month.

The great buried-Mercedes hunt was organized by Samuel Flatto Sharon, a flamboyant financier and Knesset (parliament) member, whose public efforts have included the dispatching of a private "commando" team to Uganda during last year's Tanzanian invasion to find Idi Amin, then president of Uganda, now ousted.

This time, his indignation is fired by the theft of his own Mercedes, which he values at $100,000.

A four-jeep task force, armed with metal detectors and assisted by a helicopter, is to undertake the search. The team leader is Mordecai Antonio, a businessman who says he has experience in security work.

According to Mr. Antonio, arab thieves from the Israeli-occupied Gaza strip take a bus to the Tel Aviv area and walk the streets until they find a car to their liking, generally a Mercedes taxi.

The thieves remove the license plates and put on plates from the Gaza Strip area, which permit them to drive past any security roadblocks on their trip home without arousing suspicion. At the southern end of the Gaza Strip, near the border with Sinai, the cars are handed over to Sinai Bedouin who have been experts in smuggling since time immemorial.

Some of the cars are dismantled and their parts smuggled on camelback across Sinai into Egypt.

Some of the cars, however, are buried alive -- wrapped in protective covering and sunk into deep sand in the area near the international border.

Despite shifting dunes and the apparent absence of the slightest landmark, the Bedouin reputedly are able to locate the precise spot, even after the passage of much time.

The eastern half of Sinai is to come under Egyptian control in 1982 under the peace treaty with Israel. Instead of smuggling cars across the border, the Bedouin can simply wait for the border to roll across the buried cars.

However, the need for ready cash apparently has prompted the immediate smuggling of some cars into Egypt, despite the risks involved. An Israeli journalist who recently visited Cairo thought for a moment he was back in Jerusalem when he glanced out the window of his taxi on a crowded streete at a Mercedes taxi alongside.

There on the rear window was a faded decal bearing a still legible inscription in Hebrew reading "Follow me -- to the Paratrooper Corps." It had been put there by some proud Israeli paratroop veteran who may these days be among those searching old battlefields for buried Benzes.

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