Citing a drastic increase in the number of car thefts over the past year, Internal Security Minister Gideon Ezra will ask the cabinet on Sunday to approve the establishment of a new police unit to combat the phenomenon. The unit, called Etgar (Challenge), was initially established in 1998 but was dismantled at the beginning of 2004 due to cuts in the police's operational budget. Since the unit's dismantlement, police have noted a sharp increase in the number of car thefts. The police established the unit after 45,926 cars were stolen in 1997 - almost 10,000 more than the previous year. In the last two years that the unit was functioning (2002-2003), the average number of cars stolen was less than 26,000. When police dismantled the unit, they cited the construction of the West Bank security fence as an effective means to stop car thieves - most of whom were Palestinian - from entering Israel and stealing cars. However, police have noted that the security fence is no longer as effective since there are several gaps in the fence in the North and particularly in the South, where the construction is just at its beginning stages. Thefts last year shot up to 30,000 and are occurring at a similar pace again this year. "The establishment of the unit will hopefully restore the Israeli citizen's feeling of security," Ezra told a meeting of the National Manufacturer's Association in Haifa on Friday. Ezra noted that the opening of the Trans-Israel Highway (Road 6) which cuts across the country from Umm-el Fahm in the North to the South has assisted thieves in quickly and easily transporting stolen vehicles from the North and the Sharon to chop shops in the South. The unit will be established in conjunction with the National Insurance Association which has collected 40 percent of the unit's cost from the major Israeli insurance companies. The other 60 percent will come from the police's budget. The funding arrangement, police noted, has received Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz's approval.