Heavy rain and snow cause deaths, evacuations in Middle East

Palestinian civil defense volunteers help flooded-out residents reach safety in Gaza City on Saturday.
Palestinian civil defense volunteers help flooded-out residents reach safety in Gaza City on Saturday.
(Mahmud Hams / AFP/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — Hundreds of Gaza Strip families were forced to evacuate their homes in boats and rafts as heavy flooding rose to second-story levels during the heaviest winter storm to hit the Middle East region in decades.

At least four people were reported dead as the torrential rain and snow began to subside Saturday after hammering Israel, the Palestinian territories and other nations for three days.

In a rare appeal, Hamas authorities in Gaza requested assistance from Israel, via the United Nations. Israel opened the Kerem Shalom crossing to Gaza to allow gas for heating and other humanitarian aid into the Strip, as well as pumps to remove water from flooded areas.


PHOTOS: Rare snow blankets Middle East

According to Israeli military officials, an Israeli-Palestinian command center was also set up to coordinate power, traffic and other weather-related assistance needed in the West Bank.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu kept abreast of intensive efforts to bring emergency relief to thousands of Israelis cut off from power in sub-zero temperatures.

Police, fire department and medical teams a joined hands to assist people in need, including delivering babies, transporting elderly to warm shelters and extricating people from cars and flooded structures.

Israel’s military dispatched dozens of bulldozers and heavy-duty vehicles to help clear the roads in and around Jerusalem, snowed in and cut off since Thursday, including 30 armored personnel carriers. By Saturday night, the main road to Jerusalem was partially opened. Other locations in northern Israel remained cut off.

Special authorization was issued for trains to run on the Sabbath to take home hundreds stranded in Jerusalem during the storm. Schools will remain closed in and around Jerusalem, Safed, Galilee and Golan Heights, as well as several southern locations.

Among the storm’s victims were a 6-week-old baby who died in a fire caused by a malfunctioning heating device in Lod and two men who drowned in a flooded river. Authorities implored nature lovers to avoid chasing the desert flash-floods that are spectacular but dangerous.

Mayors, politicians and citizens complained of a grave lapse in preparedness for extreme weather conditions, and the state comptroller announced Friday he would examine Israel’s readiness on all levels.