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Documentaries : Mideast Road Warriors: Getting There Is Half the Story : * Rent any car you want. In Israel, you're sure to be in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong vehicle.

June 11, 1991|KIM MUPPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — George Ghazawi, the Palestinian equivalent of an up-and-coming used car salesman, was waiting for me at my hotel when I checked in, rental-car contract in hand. "You sign here," said George, thrusting a polished gold pen in my direction.

George, I was told by those in the know, is the one you go to when you want a car navigable in Arab East Jerusalem. George's cars come equipped with plastic windows (they won't shatter when they're showered by stones), politically correct rental-car stickers in Arabic (which tend to discourage stones to begin with) and red-and-white Arab headscarves--to be casually draped across the dashboard while driving in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and rapidly stuffed under the seat when approaching Israeli army checkpoints or Jewish settlements.

It was on my first extended visit to Israel that I learned that politics, here in the vortex of the Arab-Israeli conflict, has found its subtlest and most ubiquitous expression behind the wheel of a car.

Sure, politics is debated in newspapers, in noisy parliamentary tirades, over nearly every table in neighborhood eateries, on the radio, on television, in sidewalk demonstrations, under hair dryers in beauty shops and in occasional street brawls. One brawl erupted last month on a sunny Friday morning in downtown Jerusalem, when an Arab armed with a knife began screaming "God is great!" and plunging his blade into the backs and stomachs of nearby shoppers, wounding three of them. Normally retiring Jewish family men proceeded to beat the assailant senseless, screaming, "Kill the Arabs!" The prime minister issued a statement later expressing regret that the attacker had survived.

For all this, though, as a journalist based in the Arab world, seeing Israel up close for the first time, it was not until I was driving along the narrow byways of West Jerusalem and negotiating the winding mountain roads of the West Bank that I found myself personally engaged in the conflict I had long watched from a distance. I became an actor in a political drama with beginnings that include the declaration that carved Israel out of Palestine and a finale that has yet to be written.

"Never," advised George, neatly folding the rental contract back into his briefcase, "wear your seat belt when driving in the West Bank."

Considering that most of the roads are barely wide enough for two Volkswagens abreast and are likely to be traveled by lurching trucks piled high with tomatoes or bananas, this seemed like a singularly ill-conceived idea. Not so, said George, reminding me of the hazards of Molotov cocktails and what happens if your car catches fire and you're still in it.

It was thus unrestrained that my Palestinian interpreter Hakam and I drove into the Gaza Strip one afternoon, preparing to interview Arab workers who had lost their jobs in Israel as a result of the crisis in the Persian Gulf.

Fresh from Cairo, where I have lived for two years in the midst of the most chaotic, crowded conditions the Arab world can offer, I felt companionably at home driving into Gaza's squalid, teeming heart, murmuring an Arabic greeting to a few young men at a street corner as we drove past.

One of them ran up to Hakam's side of the car and began shouting. "He says you must cover your head!" Hakam yelled as a hail of small, hard fruit began sailing toward the car.

"What do you mean, cover my head?" I demanded. "I spent seven months in Saudi Arabia (covering the war), and I didn't have to cover my head, and they think I'm going to come to Gaza and start veiling myself? Forget it!"

More fruit ricocheted off the windows, and Hakam grabbed his tweed sport coat from the back seat. "Here," he said. "Put it on."

Meekly, I thrust the jacket over my head.

"Take off your sunglasses," he ordered.

"Why?"

"Do it."

The pounding of the fruit stopped as my Ray-Bans slipped into my purse. I fumed. "Don't they know I'm not an Israeli?" I demanded as Hakam drove on silently.

Hakam kept driving, and I adjusted the coat over my ears. "It doesn't matter what I think, does it?" I said suddenly.

"No, it doesn't matter at all," he said.

We played musical rent-a-cars, trading in George's plastic-windowed Lancia--no longer politically correct because of its yellow Jerusalem license plates--for a white Peugeot with Gaza plates. That stopped most of the rocks, but it didn't stop the Israeli Defense Forces, who wanted to know what a nice American like me was doing driving a Gaza-plated car.

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