JERUSALEM --  A winter storm blanketed parts of the Middle East with unusually heavy snow this week, knocking out power, stranding motorists and closing schools, businesses and roads.

As the cold weather system descended on the region late Tuesday, the United Nations refugee agency expressed concern for people displaced by the brutal war in Syria, many of whom live in tents and other flimsy accommodation. High winds, heavy rain and snow were forecast for days in parts of Lebanon, Turkey and Syria, causing "immense additional hardship and suffering," the agency said in a statement Thursday.

Such storms are rare in the region this time of year. Jerusalem received its heaviest December snowfall since 1953 on Thursday, Israeli news outlets reported. 

“In almost all cases of snowfall since 1950, Jerusalem’s bounties were light" -- less than an inch, the Jerusalem Post  said, citing figures from the Israel Meteorological Service. “Last year’s snowy event occurred in January, while the 2012 wintry mix hit the capital in the first week of March.”

The main roads into Jerusalem were blocked most of the day. Mayor Nir Barkat called in the Israel Defense Forces to help rescue what were believed to be hundreds of stranded motorists,  the Haaretz newspaper reported.

More snow was forecast for Friday, and authorities in Jerusalem said schools would close for a second day.

The Golan Heights, Galilee mountains and large parts of the West Bank were also covered in white.

Most government offices were shuttered in Israel and the West Bank, although some opened in Ramallah for a visit by U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday. Thousands of electricity customers lost power, news reports said.

In the Gaza Strip, high winds and heavy rain brought down roofs in some of the poorer areas, including refugee camps. Streets flooded and sewage lines overflowed. At least 30 people were injured in storm-related incidents, Gaza authorities said.

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Special correspondents Sobelman and Abukhater reported from Jerusalem and Ramallah, respectively. Times staff writer Alexandra Zavis in Los Angeles contributed to this report.