Not to generalize, but in Gaza it’s said to be possible to estimate the political sympathies of the person approaching on the sidewalk without actually asking. A woman in a snug cloak, hair covered in a scarf of fuscia or some colorful print is likely aligned with Fatah, the secular Palestinian party. While a woman who understands hijab, or “cover,” to mean a robe both loose and black is more inclined toward Hamas, the Islamist movement.
A guy with a light beard and a lit cigarette: Fatah. Just a beard: Hamas.
If uncertainty persists, recent developments offer another option: Ask the time. Since the end of Ramadan, clocks set in territory controlled by Fatah are one hour ahead of clocks in territory controlled by Hamas. That means when it’s 3 p.m. on the West Bank, it’s 2 p.m. in the Gaza Strip. It’s a peculiarity of Palestinian politics that makes the leap into the absurd on a Gaza City boulevard named Arabic Countries University Street. There, two tertiary institutions share a single block. Islamic University and Al Azhar University stand side by side, separated by one wall and, for the last week, 60 minutes.
“Because of Fatah and Hamas,” says Bilal Herzallah, a third year business student at Al Azhar. “They take different decisions.”
Islamic, you see, is aligned with Hamas, while Al Azhar is strongly Fatah. The rival factions, which fought a brief civil war for control of Gaza four years ago (Hamas won), announced in May that they are burying the hatchet. Their signed and celebrated agreement called for an end to the split between Gaza and the West Bank and, within a year, new elections. But the deadline for appointing a technocratic government as caretaker came and went. And though Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah chairman who governs the West Bank, says of the reconciliation, “I think it’s working,” in Gaza, at least, you don’t have to look farther than the digital readout on a student’s cellphone for evidence to the contrary.
“It’s just talk,” says Herzallah, 20. “We haven’t seen anyone from Fatah and Hamas sitting together on the ground, only when they appear on TV. Then there’s the level of disagreement among young people themselves. For instance, my brother was shot by Hamas people. How can I look at any of the Hamas guys? And vice versa. Hamas now is too powerful. I mean they are bullying other people. That’s why we avoid them. People in Fatah don’t want to be in contact with them.”
The time difference should help there. Or maybe not. The one hour difference surely boosts the opportunities for confused fuming and missed connections. It started during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which took most of August. Fatah turned West Bank clocks back an hour in order to make life a bit easier for the overwhelmingly majority who abstain from food, smoking or even water during daylight hours. The time change gave them another predawn hour to power up for the day. But after Ramadan clocks on the West Bank returned to daylight or summer time, not least to remain in synch with the Palestinian population of East Jerusalem, which having been annexed by Israel technically remained on summer time all along. Gaza, meanwhile, remains in synch with nearby Egypt, which is actually in whole ‘nother time zone.
All of which is lost on Rewaa Fanouna, 21, who smiles from behind wraparound sunglasses. Her snug cloak is hot pink, her headscarf a bold print, and there’s a miniature teddy bear peeking from her purse, snout frayed from wear. “The university has changed the time but we as students have not,” she says, meaning, of course Al Azhar, where she studies. She says she’ll adjust her clock when classes actually start, next week, but only to avoid being marked absent.
“I’m totally against it,” Fanouna says. “We are one people. We ought to be united at least on the time!”