Rare Mideast snow brings Jerusalem joy, misery for Syria refugees

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Snow carpeted Jerusalem and the eastern Mediterranean Thursday as a rare storm turned the holy city into a winter wonderland but brought misery to the region’s Syrian refugees.

Rare Mideast snow brings Jerusalem joy, misery for Syria refugees
© Menahem KAHANA Snow covers Jerusalem’s golden-topped Dome of the Rock as rare wintry weather sweeps across the Middle East
Rare Mideast snow brings Jerusalem joy, misery for Syria refugees
© Aaref WATAD Snow blankets a displaced persons’ camp in rebel-held northwestern Syria, making living conditions miserable

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The cold snap, which has already caused major disruption in Athens and Istanbul, saw heavy snowfall in areas better known for their summer heat.

In the alleyways of Jerusalem’s walled Old City, children pelted each other with slushy snowballs after the first flakes fell late on Wednesday.

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By morning, snow crowned the golden-tipped Dome of the Rock in the Al-Aqsa mosgue compound, Islam’s third holiest site, and carpeted the esplanade in front of the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray.

Israel’s meteorological service reported that between 15 and 25 centimetres (six and 10 inches) of snow had fallen overnight.

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It took until midday for snow ploughs to reopen the main highways leading into Jerusalem from the north, south and west. 

Schools in Jerusalem and northern Israel were closed, leaving children free to play in the snow, which was not expected to last as temperatures rose and rain fell.

Rare Mideast snow brings Jerusalem joy, misery for Syria refugees
© OMAR HAJ KADOUR A Syrian boy clears snow from a tent in a displaced persons’ camp outside the rebel-held city of Jisr al-Shughur

The Israel Electric Company reported that power consumption reached an all-time high overnight as Israels switched on the heating. 

Snow also covered higher ground in the occupied West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority closed schools and some public services. 

In neighbouring Jordan, heavy snowfall closed roads in the capital Amman and made driving conditions treacherous across much of the country.

Rare Mideast snow brings Jerusalem joy, misery for Syria refugees
© HAZEM BADER Palestinian children play in the snow in the flashpoint West Bank city of Hebron

Jordan’s Meteorological Department forecast more snowfall on higher ground with temperatures expected to fall below freezing again on Thursday night.

Rare Mideast snow brings Jerusalem joy, misery for Syria refugees
© Menahem KAHANA Jewish worshippers trudge though the snow in front of Jerusalem’s Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest place where Jews can pray

Egypt recorded its coldest winter in a decade, with temperatures as much as seven to eight degrees below the seasonal average. 

The storm whipped up waves of nearly six metres (20 feet), disrupting shipping in the eastern Mediterranean, the meteorological office said.

– ‘Sick and barefoot’ –

In Syria, days of heavy snowfall blanketed displaced persons’ camps in the rebel-held northwest where families huddled together under canvas in temperatures well below zero Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit). 

Rare Mideast snow brings Jerusalem joy, misery for Syria refugees
© Bakr ALKASEM The snow provides no let-up from basic training for rebel fighters in the Turkish-controlled Afrin region of northern Syria

“We’ve been trapped in the snow for four days,” said Abu Hussan, who lives with his family in a makeshift camp outside the city of Jisr al-Shughur.

Rare Mideast snow brings Jerusalem joy, misery for Syria refugees
© Daphné LEMELIN Snow covers the streets of Jerusalem, as an overnight winter storm is expected to batter Israel and the Palestinian territories.

“We have no shoes. We are soaked with water. The children are sick and walk barefoot. They have nothing.” 

The UN humanitarian agency OCHA said this week that at least 227 displacement sites across the northwest have been hit by severe winter weather since January 18.

“545 tents have been reported destroyed and 9,125 tents damaged by snowfall, floods and winds, along with belongings of displaced people,” it said.

In crisis-hit Lebanon, refugees and Lebanese alike struggled to secure fuel for heating as severe weather blocked mountain roads and left Syrian refugees shivering in flimsy tents.

In the small Mediterranean country, where economic crisis has driven more than 80 percent of the population into poverty, fuel prices have skyrocketed after the cash-strapped government lifted subsidies last year.

Conditions have been particularly severe in the town of Arsal, high in the mountains on the Syrian border, where Lebanese families and some 70,000 Syrian refugees have been struggling to cope with the cold. 

“Most of the people can’t afford fuel for heating,” Arsal mayor Basel Hujeiri told AFP.

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