- Associated Press - Monday, April 18, 2011

JERUSALEM | Israelis cleaned their houses, cars and offices Monday and cooked furiously in preparation 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 Israel.

The holiday began 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 also is 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.

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,” Mr. Peres told the family. “It pains me, and it pains every person in Israel, that Gilad is still not with us.”

Sgt. 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 Sgt. 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 that Sgt. Schalit has been in captivity.

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