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Israelis celebrate Jewish New Year

Israelis celebrated the Jewish New Year Friday evening, grateful for the recent calm spell in the region but skeptical that the coming year would see the achievement of ever-elusive peace.
Israeli border police stand near a Palestinian woman waiting at the Bethlehem checkpoint for a permit to cross into Jerusalem to attend Friday prayers for Ramadan.Dan Balilty / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Israelis celebrated the Jewish New Year Friday evening, grateful for the recent calm spell in the region but skeptical that the coming year would see the achievement of ever-elusive peace.

The Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashana, coincides this year with Eid al-Fitr, a Muslim feast marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

Capping a year that saw Israel battle Hamas militants in a bloody three-week war in Gaza, followed by elections that brought a more hawkish government to power, Israelis remained doubtful that an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was in sight.

"We hope that this year will be better, that it will be quiet, that there will be peace, but I don't believe it will happen," said Yosef Cohen, a 40-year-old merchant at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda open-air market. "How many years have we been talking about it?"

An editorial in Haaretz newspaper was equally gloomy.

"On the national level, Israel enters the holiday season without many reasons for levity or celebration," it said. "More isolated than ever on the international scene ... despairing of a solution to the conflict."

However, Israel's 86-year-old president remained optimistic.

"The international community is keen to support endeavors to move the peace process forward," Shimon Peres said in a holiday greeting, "and I am confident that with concerted efforts, the vision of a comprehensive peace can be realized. This will create stability, tranquility, security and prosperity for our children and their children after them."

Defense Minister Ehud Barak took a middle course.

"I am in favor of sober optimism," he told the Yediot Ahronot daily.

Festivities start at sundown
Rosh Hashana, which begins at sundown, begins 10 days of Jewish soul-searching — known as the "Days of Awe" — capped by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The New Year holiday itself is a time for festive meals, which traditionally include fish, wine and an apple dipped in honey to symbolize a sweet new year.

Israelis flocked to markets on the eve of the holiday to stock up on goods, greeting one another with blessings of a happy new year.

The high holiday season, which includes the weeklong Sukkoth, or Feast of the Tabernacles, at the beginning of October, provides a time-out from Israel's pressing problems. People generally take off work and spend more time with family during this period.

West Bank crossing closed
Israel's military closed off the West Bank on Friday until midnight Sunday, barring Palestinians from entering Israel, a routine measure during Jewish holidays to deter possible attacks by Palestinian militants.

Authorities said an exception would be made for men older than the age of 50 and women older than 45 seeking to enter Jerusalem to pray at the Al Aqsa mosque — Islam's third-holiest shrine — on the fourth and final Friday of Ramadan.

However, witnesses at the Qalandia crossing between the West Bank and Jerusalem said hundreds of Palestinians seeking entry to the city were turned away by Israeli troops.

Elsewhere along the Israel-West Bank divide, Israeli and Palestinian security forces have been cooperating for the first time in time in years, often seen conversing and easing the passage of Palestinians from side to side.

Ramadan ends next week
Muslims in the West Bank and Gaza Strip will begin Sunday the Eid al-Fitr, a three-day holiday marking the end of Ramadan and commemorating the revelation of the first verses of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad.

In Gaza City ahead of the festival, the old market was packed with street merchants hawking their wares and families shopping for jeans, shoes, scarves, sweets and salted fish, traditionally eaten at this time.

The holiday atmosphere was strained in Gaza, which has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade for two years and is still reeling from January's bloodshed.

"People are psychologically worn out since the war," said Midhad Ihmeid, 45. "Does someone who lost a family member or had his house wrecked want to go and buy new shoes?"

Salam Haddad, a 34-year-old vendor, said Gaza's economic decline was affecting holiday preparations, and only the network of smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border was keeping commerce alive.

"There's no work here now, so people don't have much money for the holiday," he said.

Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics released its annual population figures to mark the New Year. It said 7,465,000 people live in Israel, with 75.5 percent of the population Jewish and 20.2 percent Arab. The rest were mostly non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Israel's population is relatively young, with 28.4 percent younger than the age of 14, compared to an average of 17 percent among Western countries, according to the report.

The annual population growth rate held steady at 1.8 percent. Unlike in previous years, the report indicated that the number of children per Jewish mother increased, while the number of children per Muslim mother decreased.