TEL AVIV, March 25 -- The fairies took over the downtown streets. Superheroes jammed the sidewalks. Extraterrestrials yapped on cell phones.
"Last year, even if there had been an event like this, I wouldn't have come out," said Kety Friedman, a 27-year-old secretary swathed in a pink feather boa and wearing a matching top hat and clinging miniskirt. "Last year, there were still all kinds of terror attacks and it wasn't safe to be in a crowd. Now, so many of us are sick of the violence and all we want is peace. I can feel it in the air."
Israeli girls dressed as brides parade through the coastal city of Holon on Purim. The holiday, which commemorates how Queen Esther thwarted a plot to massacre the Jews in Persia, is traditionally celebrated by donning disguises.
(Kevin Frayer -- AP)
Across Israel, cities and towns are hosting festivals, parties and parades throughout the weekend to mark Purim, the celebration of a Jewish massacre averted more than 2,500 years ago in ancient Persia, as recorded in the Bible. The holiday has evolved into a rambunctious costume party, and Israelis weary of 4 1/2 years of conflict with the Palestinians, eagerly gathered Friday to display costumes that reflected complex political issues and a mood that mirrored their simple craving to have fun.
"We're looking at the first mega-party that the city of Tel Aviv has sponsored in more than 11 years," said Kobby Barda, a spokesman for the city, where tens of thousands of masquerading revelers mobbed Dizengoff Square and surrounding streets.
During Purim celebrations in 1996, a Palestinian suicide bomber struck near Dizengoff Square, killing 14 Israelis and wounding 130, including costumed children. "Now, things look a lot better," Barda said.
The death of Yasser Arafat and the election of Mahmoud Abbas to replace him as Palestinian Authority president, the sharp reduction in Palestinian attacks against Israelis and the slowly warming relations between Palestinian and Israeli leaders have combined to give many Israelis a long-awaited respite from a brutal conflict.
Many residents of Tel Aviv -- Israel's most secular and cosmopolitan city -- described Friday's festivities as a chance to be outrageous, bizarre or just plain goofy.
But Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip -- all 8,200 of whom are scheduled to be evacuated this summer as part of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan -- assumed a more somber tone.
"We have to celebrate, but it's not easy," said Rivka Goldschmidt, 54, a middle school teacher in the southern Gaza settlement of Neve Dekalim. "The theme will be the government's plan to move us to the Negev. We are all going to be dressed as pioneers, because the government wants to relocate us to conquer a new desert."
Goldschmidt said one of the boys in her class came to school this week dressed as a fuse box with a sign saying: "I am not disconnecting." Some settler children wore costumes depicting Palestinian suicide bombers with explosive belts or came as homemade Qassam rockets with pointed heads and tubular bodies.
The Purim holiday is taken from the biblical Book of Esther. Queen Esther, a beautiful young Jewish woman, tells her husband, the king of Persia, of his evil assistant's plan to exterminate all the Jews in the kingdom. Esther's intervention saves the Jews and she becomes a heroine; the assistant, Haman, is hanged; and the Jews, instead of falling victim to Haman's plot, end up slaughtering their enemies.
Purim has seen much violence in modern Israeli history, as well. In Hebron in 1994, Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish settler from New York, shot and killed at least 29 Palestinians praying at a mosque inside a shrine revered by Muslims and Jews. The attack set off riots and a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel. Tel Aviv witnessed not only the 1996 bombing but another Purim attack the next year.
In Jerusalem, which has been hit particularly hard by suicide bombings in the past four years, costume shops this year offered racks of child-size uniforms of the Israeli military, Magen David Adom -- the Israeli ambulance service -- and Zaka, the rescue organization whose workers respond to bombings and other emergencies.
But among children on the streets Friday in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, little girls favored frilly princess robes and miniature bridal gowns, while little boys were Spiderman, the Incredibles and Mutant Ninja Turtles.
"The last four years, Israelis were afraid to go out of the house, especially at Purim," Neer Kliener, a political strategist, said as he shepherded a flock of pint-size superheroes through Dizengoff Square. "People were terrified of an attack. This year you have hope, you feel happier. The lowest point is past."
"There will never be peace -- ever," countered a frazzled Hali Hershkovit, 38, as she struggled to retain a grip on the hands of her 9-year-old Batman and a 4-year-old bear dripping ice cream on his fuzzy white belly. "It's not pessimism -- I know. Why? Because of our neighbors."
Twelve-year-old Yasmine Miesar was undeterred by the political talk. "I'm not scared this year," she said, glancing about the crowd. "There are security guards everywhere you look."
Not far away, an Israeli soldier sorted through the knapsack of a witch who balanced a princess atop a baby carriage, while a Native American and a devil waited their turn to pass through one of the dozens of security checkpoints surrounding the square.
"Basically, I feel safe and I'm having fun," Miesar said.
Researchers Hillary Claussen and Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem contributed to this report.