Popcorns in the sky

By WL Hangshing

During our visit to Israel, word about Corona Virus was the hot topic in town.
In the city of Jerusalem, in the narrow shopping lanes to the Kotel, we — my cousin Isaac, son Joel and I — came into a section with a predominance of Palestinian-Arab shopkeepers. We knew so because the signboards were in Arabic as different from the box-type Hebrew font. On seeing us, one shopkeeper, a well-built 30-something man, opened his arms and announced to the world at large, “Corona, welcome to Jerusalem”. He probably thought he was being humorous but we pretended indifference and carried on.
On the way back, the same by-lane had a gang of pre-teen street Arabs. They are easy to make out simply by dint of their cocky behaviour. I was engrossed in a local map trying to locate our whereabouts when suddenly I was violently pushed by a skull-capped boy yelling, “Corona! Corona!” It was good that I only just managed to pull back a reflex back-handed swipe at the boy. It attracted some exclamations and some words that I didn’t understand. It turned out that even my cousin was pushed. Things, however, did not escalate and we went on up the cobbled path.
The Oslo II Accord (1995) divided the Israeli-occupied West Bank into three administrative divisions: Areas A, B and C. Area A is exclusively administered by the Palestinian Authority; Area B is administered by both the Palestinian Authority and Israel; and Area C, which contains the Israeli settlements, is administered by Israel. Palestinians from A&B have free access to Area C for business or work-employment. Their basic grouse was that their land-space in area A is limited and encircled by B and C and with growing populations, life was becoming congested and difficult; that the interim arrangement of A-B-C was for five years but that 25 years had elapsed since; that the Israelis were just being crafty. The Israeli on the other hand wants peace and respite from war, and laments the fact that the Palestinians are fragmented and devoid of a unified leadership that can be negotiated with for a final accord and lasting peace; that while they can come into Israeli C area without facing any threat or discrimination, an Israeli cannot enter the A areas! Thus for the moment there seems no light at the end of the tunnel and it is dark and deep.
One afternoon, fighter jets were screaming past overhead. We thought that they were just routine exercises. The TV later displayed war scenes of rockets from the Gaza exploding in the sky like popcorn, after they were detected by the Iron-dome defence shield. Such, in Israel, was all part of normal routine life. It is passe’, not even attracting a discussion on TV talk-time.
The heartbeat of all the Abrahamic religions, Israel, and Jerusalem in particular, is the hub of religious tourism and the navel of the monotheist civilisations. They say that every stone in Jerusalem has a thousand stories to tell. Literally, every hill and mount is reminiscent of a biblical event. The map of Israel itself looks like a prehistoric hand-chisel.
We went to Amona, a biblical settlement site of the Amonites, overlooking Jewish Ofra and a vast horizon of Palestinian settlements. There was a chill about the swirly but gentle breeze which accentuated the spirituality of the place. We chanced upon two youngish oriental looking ladies who reluctantly revealed themselves to be Chinese. They were in Israel studying the Torah and Jewish culture. They also told about the spiritual gush that they were feeling while just being there at the hillock. Amona fell under ‘Area B’ and was a settlement site for 42 Jewish families that had been razed to the ground by the government. The foundations of the houses were prominently visible with remonstrative Israeli flags posted on some of them. There were also herds of deer prancing about the thick shrubbery and olives. It was apparent that ‘Area B’ was a safe habitat for the smaller wildlife, at least, one positive side to a conflict zone.
Koreans and Chinese were in droves at Haifa and Jerusalem, some of them in masks, but there were no instances of them being shunned or harassed by the citizenry. They are generally Christians and freely left to their evangelical work without any kind of intervention.
Indians are referred to in Israel as ‘Hodu’, which again is a biblical term for that enigmatic civilisation in the east. The security is tight and serious but the moment they come to know that one is Hodu, they loosen and open up with warmth and friendliness.
I think Israel is the only country where that happens, not even back home in India, where the northeasterner is very often the butt of teasing and harangue, especially during these corona virus days!

(The author is former
Chief Commissioner of GST and Customs, NE Region, Shillong)

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