Israel prepares for Passover festival

AP News
Posted: Apr 18, 2011 1:24 PM
Israel prepares for Passover festival

Israelis cleaned their houses, cars and offices Monday and cooked furiously in last-minute preparations for the weeklong holiday of Passover, which marks the biblical story of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt.

The story recounts that God killed the first-born boys of Egypt after the pharaoh refused to release the children of Israel from bondage, but "passed over" the houses of the Israelites.

After that divine blow, the pharaoh gave in and let the Israelites go. They were then given the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai and wandered in the desert for 40 years before arriving in the Land of Israel.

The holiday begins Monday night with a traditional seder meal. Extended families typically gather to retell the story of the exodus and eat unleavened bread called matzoh.

The tradition of eating matzoh comes from the Bible's account that the Jews left Egypt in such a hurry that there was no time to allow the bread to rise. It is also considered the bread of the poor, meant to remind Jews of their ancestors' hardships. Leavened bread is banned and burned ceremonially before the holiday starts.

Though only about a quarter of Israel's Jews are Orthodox, most hold a seder and do not eat leavened bread during the weeklong holiday.

The prime minister's office said President Barack Obama called on Monday to wish the prime minister and the Israelis a happy Passover.

A statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said the two men discussed diplomatic issues and decided to continue their discussion in the coming days.

Israeli President Shimon Peres marked the day by visiting the parents of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit in their protest tent outside the prime minister's official residence in Jerusalem.

"I am convinced we will see Gilad return home alive," Peres told the family. "It pains me and it pains every person in Israel that Gilad is still not with us."

Schalit was seized by Hamas-allied militants in a 2006 cross-border raid from the Gaza Strip. Repeated attempts at brokering a prisoner swap have failed.

Hamas has demanded Israel release hundreds of prisoners, including many who carried out deadly attacks on Israeli civilians, in exchange for Schalit. Israel has offered a mass prisoner release, but balked at some of the names on Hamas' list.

Israeli media highlighted the family's saga, noting this marked the fifth Passover eve Schalit has been in captivity.

On Sunday, Netanyahu met with Schalit's parents. He informed them that he appointed a new coordinator for negotiations over his release. David Meidan, a high-ranking official from the Mossad spy agency, will take over the role previously filled by Hagai Hadas.

In a routine measure, Israel imposed a closure on the West Bank, barring almost all Palestinians from entering Israel throughout the holiday.

At the height of Israeli-Palestinian fighting last decade, a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up at a hotel seder in 2002, killing some 30 people.