JERUSALEM: Jerusalem was transformed into a winter wonderland on Thursday after heavy overnight snowfall turned the Holy City and much of the region white, bringing hoards of excited children onto the streets.
As temperatures plummeted, the bitter winds and rain which have battered the Middle East since Sunday turned into snow, blanketing the Holy Land in white and closing schools, shops and businesses as much of the transport infrastructure ground to a halt.
As dawn broke, at least 10 centimetres (four inches) of snow had settled in Jerusalem, which lies at an altitude of about 800 metres above sea level, giving its pine-covered hills the unusual aspect of a ski resort.
And with no letup in the snowfall, city officials cancelled all bus routes but said the light rail would remain operational and free of charge until 1200 GMT in a bid to encourage people to avoid using their private vehicles.
Across the city, schools were closed for the day, with thousands of gleeful children -- and no shortage of adults -- taking to the streets to pelt each other with snowballs or to build snowmen.
With snow a rarity in the normally temperate Middle East, many resorted to using trays or bin bags to slide down some of its many steep hills, although some people could be seen dragging sledges through the streets.
A handful of visitors also turned up from Tel Aviv, where snow is almost unheard of, to join in the winter fun, somehow reaching Jerusalem despite the closure of the main highway connecting the two cities.
Few pedestrians took to the streets and those who were forced to brave the cold for reasons other than fun walked gingerly to avoid falling on the treacherously slippery pavements.
Snow ploughs were out clearing the main roads which had also been gritted, but very few vehicles could be seen on the streets following pleas by the city council for the public not to use their cars.
With less than two weeks until Israelis vote in a January 22 general election, campaign plans were put on hold for the day, and many electoral posters were almost obliterated by snow, AFP correspondents said.
The winding streets of Jerusalem's Old City were almost completely deserted, with only a handful of shops open for business.
Forecasters said the snow would continue to fall until Thursday afternoon.
As the winter storm entered its fifth day, power cuts left around 20,000 homes without electricity, Israeli officials said, many of them in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
The scenes in Jerusalem were played out across much of Israel and the Palestinian territories, with the West Bank city of Ramallah also making the most of a rare snow day with children and even policemen seen playing excitedly in the streets, an AFP correspondent said.