The eastern Mediterranean is suffering its worst winter storm in decades, which blanketed hilly areas of the Levant under more than a foot of snow, turned city streets in the Gaza Strip into lakes, and left tens of thousands of people across the region without power.
The chaos caused by three days of snow, rain and frigid temperatures brought criticism in Israel of civilian officials’ preparedness for the emergency, and prompted the Israelis and Palestinians to set up a combined command centre in a rare joint regional effort aimed at addressing humanitarian needs.
In Jerusalem, where many neighbourhoods were without power from Thursday night, traffic was still at a standstill on Saturday morning, and snow blanketed landmarks like the al-Aqsa compound, site of the Dome of the Rock.
In the northern Gaza Strip, which is already experiencing an acute humanitarian crisis caused by a lack of fuel and electricity, which has impaired officials’ ability to treat sewage and water, some people fled their homes in boats after their neighbourhoods were flooded.
More than 600 families were evacuated, including from Rafah in the south of the Gaza Strip, and from Jabalia and Beit Lahia in the north, Isra al-Modallal, a spokeswoman for the Hamas-led government, told the Financial Times.
“We have been working with members of Palestinian civil organisations to help the people,” Ms al-Modallal said.
Israel, which has had tight controls on the territory’s land and sea borders since Hamas assumed power in 2007, on Friday opened the Kerem Shalom crossing in southern Israel to allow humanitarian aid to enter the Gaza Strip. UN agencies and Mekorot, the Israeli state-owned water company, transferred four water pumps into the territory to address flooding, according to Cogat, the Israeli body that coordinates civilian activities in the Palestinian territories.
Chris Gunness, a spokesman for UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, said that large swaths of northern Gaza were a “disaster area”.
“Areas around Jabalia have become a massive lake with two meter high waters engulfing homes and stranding thousands,” he said. The agency has 4,000 workers battling the floods, and hundreds of families have been evacuated to UNRWA facilities, Mr Gunness said.
The harsh conditions have wrought havoc on Syria, where a raging civil war has displaced millions of people. Photos posted to social media showed heavy snow blanketing flimsy tents used as makeshift shelters by refugees, children shivering in the cold and rebel fighters with rocket launchers trundling across white landscapes.
“For the hundreds of thousands of refugees in Lebanon, as well as those in neighbouring countries and the displaced in Syria, a storm like this creates immense additional hardship and suffering,” Amin Awad, director of UNHCR’s Middle East and North Africa bureau, was quoted as saying.
Nearly 2.3m Syrian refugees have registered with UNHCR, most of them in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. An estimated 6m Syrians have been displaced inside their own country.
In Israel, where snow was still falling at higher altitudes on Saturday morning, about 30,000 households were still without power, according to the Israel Electric Corporation, as reported by the Ynet news service.
Yosef Shapira, Israel’s State Comptroller, said on Friday that he would investigate the country’s response to the storm, and was quoted by Ynet as saying that the lack of preparedness for the storm was “a problem on a national scale”.
Israelis took to Twitter and other social media sites to complain about the response to the storm of authorities such as Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat to the crisis.
Responding to the criticism, Moshe Ya’alon, defence minister said that “There is no room to talk about failure”. However, he said, the “storm took us by surprise in its magnitude and consequences, but we were quick in our preparations.”
In Egypt, snow blanketed parts the country, including the outskirts of the capital, Cairo, where heavy rains left deep puddles that made many streets unnavigable.
Interim Prime Minister Hazem Beblawy had ordered municipal officials to clear water from streets. Any misstep could damage the reputation of a military appointed administration that came to power in a popularly backed coup.
The cold snap has lowered temperatures to just above freezing, spurring more demand for heavily subsidised electricity and heating oil and further taxing the government’s resources.
The heavy snow caused flight cancellations in Jordan’s capital, Amman, where residents described abandoned cars along the airport road. The Jordanian army announced that it would deploy troops to help dig the country out of snows as deep as half a meter.
Snow also blocked roads in mountainous Lebanon, causing school cancellations . At least four people have been reportedly killed as a result of the snow and cold, including a Syrian refugee infant.
Get alerts on Arab-Israel conflict when a new story is published