JERUSALEM — It is supposed to be the most festive holiday on the Jewish calendar. Children dress up as princesses and Spiderman and in an array of sparkling costumes. They play pranks and set off firecrackers. Thousands of Israelis watch floats parading through their towns.
But Purim also brings horrific memories of a string of suicide bombings in 1996 and 1997 that killed dozens of Israelis. Now, with the country mired in the deadliest Israeli-Palestinian fighting in decades, Israelis are marking the date with more apprehension than joy.
Instead of the typical open-air carnivals and masquerade balls, many Israeli families have sought out safer indoor venues, avoided crowds or decided to forgo parties altogether.
"I'm afraid. The situation is terrible, and no place is safe," said Rachel Ohayon, a resident of the coastal city of Netanya who took her children to a kind of Purim play day at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. "But I don't want to stop the kids from having their holiday. It's very special for them."
Ohayon was supervising two daughters, 7 and 4, dressed as beauty queens, and her 2-year-old son, who looked like a pint-size Batman. They and other children were attending workshops in the museum's Youth Wing, pasting together finger puppets and painting masks.
Although overall attendance has plummeted since the start of the current conflict 17 months ago, the museum's sprawling complex on Jerusalem's tree-dotted western slope has become an especially popular destination for families, a kind of safe bubble, in the words of Youth Wing curator Nurit Shilo-Cohen.
With warnings of terrorist attacks already high, thousands of regular and paramilitary police officers were deployed throughout the country for the holiday, which marks the rescue from slaughter of Persia's Jews about 2,500 years ago. It was observed Tuesday in most of the Jewish world and is being observed today in Jerusalem.
In the port city of Haifa, police arrested a Palestinian who they said was carrying a loaded AK-47 assault rifle and two spare clips and was on his way to use them. And in Jerusalem, a policewoman died of wounds inflicted Monday when a Palestinian gunman strafed a crowded bus stop.
At a factory on Jerusalem's northern outskirts this morning, a Palestinian shot an Israeli to death, police said. A Palestinian was wounded in the incident.
Purim lost its lighthearted luster years ago. Suicide bombings killed 13 Israelis crowding Tel Aviv's largest shopping mall during the Purim of 1996, and four more a year later at a cafe. The victims included youngsters in their Purim costumes. Dozens more people were killed in a pair of bus bombings leading up to the 1996 Purim attack.
In September 2000, the Palestinians launched a new uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which has escalated to include near-daily suicide bombings, shootings or other attacks on Israelis, while Israel has retaliated with aerial bombardments, the targeted killings of Palestinian militants and a harsh siege on most Palestinian towns and cities.
Call it resilience, call it denial--Israelis have a knack for adjusting many aspects of their daily lives to a relentless violence and the threat of more. Nearly 300 Israelis have been killed since September 2000--the Palestinian death toll is almost three times that--and there is no end in sight. Some people take all sorts of measures to keep safe, and others seek routine as their own form of defiance.
"It comes down to a basic belief," said Nadav Wertsman, who works for a high-tech company. "I have no intention of leaving this place. We are here, and no one will break us. It may sound old-fashioned, but it's true."
Wertsman was also at the museum. He wore a pair of shaggy dog ears, and his 4-year-old daughter was decked out in a princess' white gown and a faux diamond tiara.
Another parent, her two boys in tow, said she has grown accustomed to the fear around Purim. "This year is worse, but every year there are warnings and people are afraid to go places," said Shirley, a translator for film subtitles who asked that her last name not be published.
She said she is horrified to hear her sons, 3 and 7, talk about "fighting the Arabs"--mimicking, no doubt, what they see on television or hear on the playground. "I can see the conflict already went down to the next generation," she said.
Ruth Lenk, a graphic designer who lives in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevaseret Zion, also hoped to find a respite at the museum. As they left home, her 8-year-old had paused. "I hope today it's only for celebrations," Margalit, donning a red-and-white jester's cap, told her mother. "I hope nothing bad happens."