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SUNDAY, 20 APR 2014
09:26 PM Beirut time
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Middle East
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Holy Land hit by heaviest snowfall in decades
Agence France Presse
A couple walks on a snow covered street in Jerusalem December 14, 2013. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
A couple walks on a snow covered street in Jerusalem December 14, 2013. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
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JERUSALEM: The heaviest snowfall in decades blocked roads across Israel and the Palestinian territories on Saturday, while torrential rains flooded areas of the Gaza Strip.

The heavy snow prompted Israeli authorities to interrupt the Jewish sabbath to lay on relief trains.

In northern Israel, 45 towns and villages were cut off and 200 snowbound motorists were rescued overnight, police said.

Nationwide, 29,600 households were without electricity, nearly 13,000 of them in Jerusalem, the Israel Electric Corp said.

Jerusalem city workers managed to clear most roads of drifting snow but appealed to residents to stay at home as fallen trees posed a persistent traffic hazard.

Few ventured out, apart from observant Jews walking to synagogues.

The two main highways into the city, which climb to around 795 metres (2,600 feet) above sea level, remained closed in both directions for a third straight day.

Jerusalem-based meteorologist Boaz Nechemia told AFP that between 45 and 60 centimetres (18-24 inches) of snow had accumulated in the Holy City by Saturday.

"We haven't had such a snowfall in some 70 years," he said, noting that a metre of snow fell on Jerusalem in 1920.

With road travel almost impossible, authorities laid on free trains to Tel Aviv and Haifa on the coast, interrupting the usual shutdown of public transport on the Jewish day of prayer and rest, which runs from sundown on Friday to Saturday night.

The army said it was using armoured vehicles to distribute aid to areas cut off by the bad weather.

Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Saturday that "we are still facing two crucial days."

Access to West Bank cities such as Ramallah remained blocked by heavy snowfall, an AFP correspondent said, with the only source of power in many cases being private generators.

Low ground on the coast was spared the snowfall, but torrential rains left areas of the Gaza Strip submerged.

Gaza was "a disaster area with water as far as the eye can see," the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees said.

"Four thousand UNRWA workers are battling the floods and have evacuated hundreds of families to UNRWA facilities," spokesman Chris Gunness said.

"We have distributed 5,000 litres (1,100 gallons) of fuel to local pumping stations, but the situation is dire and with the flood waters rising, the risk of water-borne disease can only increase," he said.

The territory's Hamas rulers said 5,500 people had been rescued and sheltered after their homes were flooded on Saturday.

In some places, security forces and rescue workers were evacuating residents using small boats.

Gaza's Coastal Municipalities Water Authority said there are more than 15 areas that are heavily flooded.

On Friday, Israel opened the Kerem Shalom crossing into Gaza to deliver gas for domestic use and to fuel pumps to drain the floodwaters.

An official of the Hamas government said Israel would open the crossing again on Sunday to deliver fuel to the Palestinian territory's sole power plant, which is currently not operational.

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