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Tel Aviv Urges Phone Callers to Kick Mobile Habit in Public

Israeli city campaigns to cut use of cellulars in 'inappropriate' situations--such as at restaurants, operas and funerals.


TEL AVIV — First he heard them ringing in restaurants. Then he heard the peal of mobile telephones in museums, movie theaters and libraries. But when Amir Halevi had to listen to someone else's phone call in the middle of a funeral, that was the last straw.

The Tel Aviv city councilman decided to fight back against Israel's cacophony of cellular phones and came up with what he hopes is a solution: no-phone zones.

Beginning this week, the Tel Aviv municipality is giving businesses and public institutions that wish to create a phone-free area printed placards that show a mobile phone with a bold red line across it.

"No talking on cellular phones here," the signs read.

"We are not going to pass a law. It will be up to each business to decide whether to put up the signs," Halevi said. "But I hope this will be the start of a movement, like with no-smoking signs a few years ago."

Never mind that Israelis still smoke like fiends in restaurants or that Halevi had to interrupt himself to take a call on his own mobile phone.

"At least I'm not in a concert hall," he said, shrugging.

With close to 1 million mobiles in circulation, the ringing telephone has joined the Sabbath siren and the Muslim call to prayer as the native sound of Israel.

Already, the parent, rabbi or plumber without a cellular phone is a rarity. It is not uncommon to see two people sharing a restaurant table, each talking on a cellular phone to someone else.

Cellcom, the underdog in a market led by a Motorola partnership, is connecting about 1,000 new subscribers a day.

When a mobile phone rings in an Israeli bank or supermarket, dozens of customers frantically pat their pockets and rummage through purses to see if it is theirs. And mobile phones are part of a look here, along with a big set of keys and a full pack of cigarettes: They spell style to a '90s generation.

But Israelis are not just wearing their phones. They are schmoozing up a storm, spending an average of 500 minutes a month on their pelephones, or "wonderphones," as the mobiles are called. That is about three times as much as in other countries, according to Cellcom spokeswoman Orna Gubernik.

Usage fees that are among the world's lowest contribute to this, as does the Israeli character. This is a country that tunes in radio news bulletins every half hour because Israelis want to know what is going on, and they want to know now.

Then they want to tell somebody else.

Or maybe everybody else. It sometimes seems as if the cafe caller wants every last patron to hear about his mother's gallbladder or his partner's business deal. But Halevi does not believe that the average espresso-drinker is interested.

"We are not against mobiles," he said. "We just don't want them to bother people."

Halevi is not the first to complain about the plethora of phones.

Earlier this year, commanders at a southern Israeli army base protested when 90% of the new recruits to a tank battalion showed up for basic training packing mobile phones. "The parents equip them with cellular phones, and they turn into ridiculous soldiers," one officer said.

The army imposed regulations on mobile-phone use after at least one soldier stationed near the Lebanese border used his phone to order a pizza.

Last year, the national telephone company ran television ads reminding Israelis that there are some places where mobiles are inappropriate. The effect was minimal, which leads some Israelis to doubt the prospects for Halevi's no-phone-zone campaign.

"We have to have our pelephones turned on. That's why we carry them," said Yossi Avisai, a diamond trader. "Besides, everyone is always shouting in Israel anyway. What's the difference?"

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