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Israel, Palestinians Don't See the Light Together

The West Bank and Gaza Strip defiantly postpone the switch to daylight saving time.

March 29, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — To the long list of things upon which Israel and the Palestinians cannot agree, add the answer to this simple question: "What time is it?"

Israel set its clocks ahead by one hour on Friday, switching over to daylight saving time. But Palestinians, in a traditional annual gesture of defiance, opted to stay on standard time, leaving the West Bank and Gaza Strip an hour behind Israel.

At noon in Jerusalem, Michel Fares, a lay employee at the Latin Patriarchate, which oversees Roman Catholic churches in the Holy Land, called one of his brethren in the West Bank town of Bethlehem for a scheduled chat.

But his colleague wasn't there. In Bethlehem -- just six miles south of Jerusalem -- it was only 11 a.m.

"This, or something like it, is going to happen every day, until we are in the same time zone again," Fares said with resigned irritation.

Just when that might happen is up to Yasser Arafat. Generally, the Palestinian Cabinet agrees to move the clocks ahead around a week after Israel does, and submits that proposal to the Palestinian Authority president for approval.

Palestinian officials said they thought the matter would be taken up within the next 10 days.

The practice of Palestinians timing their time change so as not to coincide with Israel's dates to the first intifada, or uprising, in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

A week's distance between Israeli and Palestinian time switch-overs every spring and fall persisted during peacemaking efforts in the mid-to-late 1990s, which collapsed with the outbreak of the new conflict in September 2000.

That approach to timekeeping has taken hold with renewed vigor now.

"It is one small way of asserting our sovereignty, stating our own view," said Ghassan Khatib, the Palestinian labor minister. "What else would you expect?"

For those who try to move between what have become increasingly separate worlds in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the time difference is yet another reminder of an ever-widening gulf.

"I keep my watch set on Palestine time," said 22-year-old Palestinian student Layaly Dajani, who lives in Jerusalem but commutes to classes at Birzeit University in the town of Ramallah, just north of Jerusalem.

"The good thing about the time difference is that I get to sleep an extra hour in the morning -- but when I return home, I'm starving, and no one else in my family is hungry yet," she said.

"And when I want to do things with my friends in Jerusalem, I always have to check which time we're talking about, Israeli or Palestinian. But sometimes one of us forgets, and is one hour early or one hour late."

For Israelis, deciding what time it is has less to do with the Palestinians and more to do with the religious-secular split within their own society.

Most Israelis give little thought to being on a different clock than the Palestinians. But last year, the end of daylight saving time sparked a bitter domestic quarrel over a bid by ultra-Orthodox parties to turn back the clock sooner than scheduled -- and thus shorten the fasting time on the somber Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement.

The secular-rights party Shinui, a powerful partner in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's coalition government, has vowed to block any such move this autumn, when Yom Kippur comes around again.

At least once in the past, confusion over the time difference has had deadly consequences for assailants planning attacks against Israelis.

In 1999, a payload of explosives detonated before a Palestinian bomber was able to reach his apparent target inside Israel. Investigators surmised that the bomb makers had set a timer to Palestinian time, while those planning the planting of the device used Israeli time -- causing the bomb to go off prematurely.

Despite the time change, Friday's noon prayers in Jerusalem's Old City -- the holiest occasion of the Muslim week -- went on at the usual hour, though marked by tight security and roiled by ill feelings over the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Muslim prayers, which the devout perform five times daily, are adjusted to agree with the Koran's often poetic descriptions of dawn, midmorning, midday, midafternoon and evening, rather than being tied to any particular time.

While the Israeli military often keeps the West Bank and Gaza Strip sealed off from Israel proper, the two sides do meet in Jerusalem, with its Jewish western sector and its traditionally Arab eastern one. In the city's non-Jewish quarters, the time change was met with some ambivalence.

Several merchants in Jerusalem's walled Old City pointed to wall clocks that were set to Palestinian time -- but said they were adhering to Israeli business hours.

In the West Bank village of Beit Jala, a Palestinian laborer named Waed Abed Rabbo recalled how a year ago, living in one time zone and working in another made his job at an Israeli textile factory seem particularly tiring. Whether at home or at work, he always felt an hour off, he said.

What about this year?

"Luckily," he said sarcastically, "I lost my job."

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