Snow gives Mideast a weather makeover

Snow falls in Jerusalem
An ultra-Orthodox Jew makes his way through a snow storm to morning prayers as Israeli police patrol Wednesday in Jerusalem's Old City.David Silverman / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

A rare blizzard stormed through the Middle East on Wednesday, blanketing parts of the Holy Land in white, blocking roads and shutting schools across the region and sending excited children into empty streets for snowball fights.

The sense of excitement among locals used to warm Middle Eastern weather was palpable.

Children in Jerusalem played in the slushy streets, and the weather topped local newscasts, eclipsing an upcoming government report on the 2006 war in Lebanon that could pressure Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to resign.

Men in long Arab robes pelted each other with snow balls in Jordan's capital Amman, and the West Bank city of Ramallah, seat of the Palestinian government, came to a standstill. There were virtually no cars on the streets, and excited children built snowmen and rolled around in the snow.

The streets of Jerusalem were largely empty, but dozens of people bundled up in warm clothing and played in the snow at Gan Sacher, the city's central park, where a snowman-building contest was planned.

Jerusalem's Old City, including the Dome of the Rock, was coated in white. A few ultra-Orthodox Jews, wearing plastic bags over their hats to keep them dry, braved the cold to pray at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site.

Snow falls in Jerusalem once or twice each winter, but temperatures rarely drop low enough for it to stick, and the city is not designed to deal with snowy weather. With schools shut, most public places closed down and many people stayed home from work.

Felix Bouhnik drove to Jerusalem with his wife from the central city of Rishon Lezion, about an hour away, just to see the snow. Bouhnik said the snow made Jerusalem look "very Swiss." Bouhnik, 60, said he had not seen snow like this here — "never in Israel, only in Europe," he said.

The Israeli weather service said up to 8 inches of snow had fallen so far in Jerusalem. By late morning, the snow had changed to rain, turning the city into a slushy mess. But forecasters said temperatures were expected to drop, and the snow would continue through Thursday morning.

Heavy snow also was reported in the Golan Heights and the northern Israeli town of Safed, and throughout the West Bank.

In Ramallah, residents were surprised to see snow when they woke up. For some, it was their first time.

"I'm originally from Gaza where snow never falls," said Bothaina Smairi, 28, who was out in the snow taking pictures. "The white snow is covering the old world and I feel like I am in a new world where everything is white, clean, and beautiful," she said.

"I am just astonished with the snow. When I saw the snow this morning, I felt happy, my heart was laughing," said Mary Zabaro, 17, a student dressed warmly in a red hat and pink scarf.

In Amman, children sledded on inflatable tubes and plastic bowls as snow plows tried to open streets clogged with one foot of snow.

Police warned that roads in the capital and highways linking the capital were temporarily closed. Announcements broadcast on state television appealed for citizens to remain indoors to avoid the dangers of icy roads.

"We're playing in the snow because we miss it since we get to see it only once or twice a year," said Ibrahim Saadeh, 28, as he built a snowman with a group of women wearing Islamic headscarves and black dresses in front of their Amman home.

Snow covered most mountain villages and blocked roads in Lebanon as strong winds and heavy rains lashed at coastal areas off the Mediterranean. The storm disrupted power supplies in most Lebanese towns and villages, exacerbating already existing power cuts. Portions of the Beirut-Damascus highway linking Lebanon with Syria were closed.

In Syria, temperatures dipped below freezing and snow blanketed the hills overlooking Damascus. High winds of 45 mph forced the closure of the Mediterranean ports of Tartous and Lattakia, according to the Syria Meteorology department.