JERUSALEM – Israelis ushered in the Jewish New Year on Sunday with a sense of uncertainty, fearful that war with Iran could break out this year.
The two-day Rosh Hashana holiday, which was beginning at sundown, commemorates the creation of the world — which this year reached the age of 5773, according to the Jewish calendar. In synagogues, special prayers are recited and a ram's horn is blown, and at festive family meals, apple slices are eaten in honey to signify a sweet new year. The holiday also begins a 10-day period of introspection culminating with Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said several thousand police officers were on patrol in Jerusalem, a standard deployment to secure public areas during the holiday. But paramilitary border police and undercover units were also deployed in case of additional demonstrations by Muslims in the city against an incendiary film portraying the Prophet Muhammad. Small protests took place in Jerusalem last week, though nothing close to the intensity of larger demonstrations in Libya, Yemen and Egypt.
In a break from years past, Israel did not seal off the West Bank or restrict entry of Palestinians into Israel for this year's holiday. In recent months, Israel has relaxed restrictions on West Bank Palestinians, issuing them more Israeli work permits and allowing tens of thousands to visit Israel during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the subsequent Eid al-Fitr holiday.
Public transportation and stores shut down for the festival and the country came to a standstill as Israelis sat down with family and loved ones for the traditional holiday dinner Sunday night.
Edna Cohen, 64, from Petah Tikvah said that media reports of possible hostilities with Iran are making her feel uneasy. "There is a lot of talk in the papers and on the radio about this and I get worried," she said.
Earlier in the day, Israelis packed grocery aisles and stocked their carts with last-minute essentials for the holiday.
At a kiosk in Jerusalem, Arielle Goetschel, 23, who immigrated from France two weeks ago, said she was stressed, joking that she couldn't find the vegetables she needed — but mainly because of the threat of a war with Iran.
"We're really worried," Goetschel said, standing next to her husband. But, she added: "We want to be with the rest of the Jews. We feel more secure here."
The possibility that Israel may strike Iran's nuclear program to prevent it from developing the capability to make weapons-grade material has dominated headlines in the Jewish state for the past year. Israeli rhetoric has reached a fever pitch in recent weeks, with leaders claiming that Iran is getting perilously close to developing a nuclear bomb.
Israel considers a nuclear-armed Iran to be a mortal threat. It cites Iranian threats to destroy Israel, Iran's development of missiles capable of striking it, and Iranian support for Arab militant groups on Israel's northern and southern borders. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.
Few nations in the West believe the Iranian claim, but differences have emerged in how to confront the Islamic state. Israel, warning that time is running out, has repeatedly threatened to attack unilaterally if it concludes Iran is approaching weapons capability. The U.S. says tough international sanctions and diplomacy must be given time to work.
These different approaches have spilled over into public disagreement between the two allies as President Barack Obama resists Israeli calls to set explicit "red lines" for Iran.
In a battery of holiday interviews granted to Israeli media and American TV networks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intensified his campaign to push the U.S. to declare the conditions that would necessitate a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.
"Iran is guided by a leadership with an unbelievable fanaticism," he told NBC. "You want these fanatics to have nuclear weapons?"
American officials have said they understand Israel's concerns, but there are signs that Netanyahu's challenges in the media are weighing on American patience.
In an interview published in Foreign Policy magazine, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta implied Netanyahu is forcing the issue. "Red lines are kind of political arguments that are used to try to put people in a corner," he said.
Nahum Barnea, a prominent Israeli commentator, said Netanyahu has succeeded at pressuring the international community to increase sanctions. But in recent weeks, "Israeli pressure caused more harm than good," he wrote in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.
"The public conflict with the American administration weakened Israel's power of deterrence; got the state involved, against its better interests, in the U.S. elections race; caused unnecessary economic and political damage; and did not in any way advance the struggle to stop Iran," Barnea wrote.
At a supermarket in central Jerusalem, Israeli shoppers seemed confused if the Israeli warnings about Iran were real or bluff. "You see Rabbi Ovadia Yosef saying we need extra prayers," said Amram Levy, 50, an ultra-Orthodox Jew, citing an influential rabbi. But, he added, "we don't really know if it's really dangerous, or if they're just inflating things."
In a ray of optimism, Yedioth Ahronoth published an upbeat letter from Gilad Schalit, the former Israeli soldier held by the Islamic group Hamas in Gaza for five years and swapped last October for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. His release was cause for national celebration in Israel.
It was Schalit's most detailed personal account to the Israeli public about his first year of freedom. Schalit said he is still often greeted with hugs by teary Israelis, and said a champagne-soaked celebration with basketball players at the NBA finals in Miami was the most significant experience he'd had since his release.
Schalit said he plans a long hike in nature, and then to begin university studies next year.
"Anyone can suddenly find himself in extreme circumstances," Schalit wrote. "Always, always remember that there is a chance for rescue from every trouble."
Follow Daniel Estrin at twitter.com/danielestrin