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Coronavirus doesn't stop Purim party for Israel's haredi Jews

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Bnei Brak (Israel) (AFP)

Israel has imposed some of the world's tightest restrictions to contain coronavirus, but that did not stop ultra-Orthodox Jews from hitting the streets Tuesday to celebrate a treasured religious custom: drinking on Purim.

Sometimes dubbed the "fun" Jewish holiday, Purim typically includes costumes and boisterous public celebrations marking a story dating from fourth-century Persia that saw Jews defeat a murderous plot against them.

One verse in the Megillah text that recounts the story and laws of the holiday instructs Jews to "drink on Purim until you cannot distinguish between cursing Haman and blessing Mordechai," referring to the villain and a hero of the story.

Israel, which has 58 coronavirus cases, has imposed a mandatory two-week quarantine on anyone entering the country and banned public gatherings of more than 5,000 people, among other measures.

But for ultra-Orthodox residents of Bnei Brak, a town east of Tel Aviv, it was Purim as usual on Tuesday.

Thousands were on the streets, including staggering teenagers swigging red wine straight from the bottle.

Men, women and children wore costumes that ranged from tame, like a unicorn, to more politically controversial.

Ahuva Alfa, who said her son was dressed as "a Palestinian throwing rocks", told AFP she had no concerns about contracting coronavirus.

"Rabbi Kanievsky said there won't be corona in Bnei Brak, so there won't be corona in Bnei Brak," Alfa said, referring to Shmaryahu Yosef Chaim Kanievsky, a leader of the ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, community.

"During the Gulf War he said no (Iraqi) scud (missiles) will land on Bnei Brak, and he was right!"

- 'Cure for Corona' -

In the occupied West Bank Palestinian authorities ordered restaurants and cafes closed in multiple cities, including Ramallah.

Shoppers in Ramallah were stocking up on food Tuesday while Bethlehem, which has all but one of the West Bank cases, remained on lockdown.

Israel also announced the closure of the Allenby Crossing, the main route from the West Bank into neighbouring Jordan.

But for Jews in the West Bank city of Hebron, Purim took priority.

Soldiers guarded the colourful annual parade in the city, which was attended by resident Baruch Marzel, who insisted there was "no problem holding parades here," despite the outbreak in Bethlehem some 22 kilometres (13 miles) away.

"Hebron is a holy city," he told AFP, suggesting God would protect it.

- 'We never hug or kiss' -

The mood at Israel's normally bustling Ben Gurion airport was distinctly more downbeat.

The arrivals hall was nearly empty the morning after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the new measures that apply to returning residents and visitors.

"My husband came to pick me up and I am going home to undergo the 14-day quarantine. I have no choice," said Maya, who just flew in from New York.

In Bnei Brak, where visibly drunk people spilled out of synagogue, including one person with what appeared to be vomit on their chest, Rivi Bard told AFP that Purim partiers "don't feel coronavirus".

"What happens happens. God is in charge, we do what we need to do on this special day," the 30-year-old said.

He also noted that haredim were likely at less risk than others, given the lack of casual physical contact among members of the deeply religious community.

"We never hug or kiss so it's not changing many things for us," he said.

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