JERUSALEM – Israelis happily welcomed the Jewish New Year on Wednesday despite uncertainty and turmoil brewing on both its northern and southern borders.
Rosh Hashana, which begins at sundown, ushers in 10 days of Jewish soul-searching — known as the "Days of Awe" — capped by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The two-day holiday commemorates the creation of the world — which this year reached the age of 5774, according to the Jewish calendar.
But all around Israel, the region is in upheaval. Egypt has experienced weeks of unrest since the military overthrew its Islamist president in July, and al-Qaida-linked fighters are roaming the lawless Sinai Peninsula on Israel's doorstep. In Syria, a bloody civil war that has killed more than 100,000 rages on as the U.S. weighs a military strike in reaction to the regime's alleged use of chemical weapons.
Israel fears violence could spill into its territory. Syria's Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, possesses thousands of rockets and missiles that could be used against Israel if a U.S. strike sparks a wider conflagration. The Jewish state has been careful not to take sides in the conflict but is believed to have carried out three airstrikes inside Syria, targeting weapons reportedly headed to Hezbollah.
"The world around us has turned upside down," columnist Eitan Haber wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily. "The picture is still not clear, but in any case it is not an easy one for ... Israel, which is trying to live a normal life in destructive and turbulent surroundings."
His colleague, Sever Plocker, said the year could prove to be one of the most fateful in Israeli history.
"Israel and its government will be called upon to cope — first on a conceptual level and then in diplomatic and military terms — with a different Syria, a different Egypt, a different Iran, and different Palestinians," he wrote. "The year 5774 is expected to be a year that can be called challenging, or more simply put: difficult."
A small glimmer of hope exists in the newly restarted peace talks with Palestinians. Though both sides remain skeptical a final peace accord can be reached, the talks offer a boost after more than five years of stalemate in peacemaking efforts.
In a taped new year's greeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel sought a "real and enduring peace" with the Palestinians while protecting itself from all other regional threats. Israel's greatest fear is that Syria's patron, Iran, could develop a nuclear weapon. Iran denies that it is pursuing an atomic bomb.
"While we're not involved in the internal conflict in Syria, we will defend ourselves and if it is necessary, we will act with resolve to protect our people. No one should doubt our resolve," he said. "Iran's nuclear program must be stopped. We simply cannot allow the world's most dangerous regime to obtain the world's most dangerous weapon. We already have enough indication of what this could do."
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. The military often takes the preventive step out of concern that militants could carry out attacks.
Nonetheless, Israeli police stepped up security in Jerusalem's Old City, a popular destination during the holiday. Underscoring those concerns, Israeli police clashed with dozens of Palestinian stone-throwers who tried to block a group of visitors from reaching a sensitive religious site in the Old City. Seven Palestinians were arrested, and others sought refuge inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Police did not enter the mosque and said the incident ended without any injuries.
Across Israel, Jews were far more focused on the holiday than talks or regional threats. They cleaned frantically, rushed to crowded marketplaces, cooked and clogged the highways en route to family.
Eliran Vazana, 24, said he was recently told by the military to be prepared for an emergency reserve call up if things in Syria deteriorate. But he said he wasn't concerned.
"You learn to cope with the situation. This is where we live. There is nothing you can do about it," he said.
The Rosh Hashana holiday is a time for festive meals, which traditionally include fish, wine and an apple dipped in honey to symbolize a sweet new year.
Jerusalem's outdoor market of Mahane Yehuda was teeming with shoppers closely examining fruits and vegetables, piping-hot breads and sticky honey-glazed cakes. Sales in two popular holiday items — honey and pomegranates — were brisk.
Observant Jews prepared for long hours in synagogues over the holiday. Highlights of the ritual include the sounding of the shofar, a trumpet made of a ram's horn.
Israel's population this year crossed the 8 million mark, growing by 148,000 to 8,081,000 people. The date, released by Israel's central bureau of statistics, showed that 75.1 percent of its residents were defined as Jewish, 20.7 percent as Arab and 4.2 percent as belonging to other groups.