RAMALLAH - Abnormal storms which for four days have blasted the Middle East with rain, snow and hail have left at least 11 people dead and brought misery to Syrian refugees huddled in camps.
Officials reported that two women were found dead in the West Bank on Wednesday after their car was swept away in floods, while a 30-year-old man froze to death in Taalabaya, in Lebanon’s Bekaa province, after he fell asleep drunk in his car.
Snow carpeted Syria’s war-torn cities but sparked no let-up in the fighting, instead heaping fresh misery on a civilian population already enduring a chronic shortage of heating fuel and daily power cuts. In Jerusalem, schools closed at midday and driving wind, hail and rain battered the city as temperatures hovered just above freezing and the polar air mass moving down from Russia sent temperatures plummeting as far south as Cairo. Raging winds and flash floods caused widespread damage to infrastructure across the Palestinian territories.
“The Palestinian infrastructure is deeply flawed and unable to handle weather like this,” said Ghassan Hamdan, head of medical relief in the northern city of Nablus. Torrential rain since Sunday in a region unaccustomed to such deluges has sparked widespread flooding that has also led to transport chaos and helicopter evacuations. Met offices warned that the below-normal temperatures threatened to turn accumulated water to black ice and in Jordan police warned against all but essential travel as traffic accidents multiplied. They said hazardous driving conditions had caused more than 700 traffic accidents in 48 hours. In northern Jordan, conditions for Syrian refugees in the Zaatari camp near the border were miserable as they battled a sea of mud and plummeting temperatures. “My tent has been destroyed. I tried to fix it but it did not work. We don’t know what to do,” said Mohammad Hamed, 30, who fled the conflict in Syria a month ago. “We need help. Urgent help. If this situation continues, our children will die.” Conditions were little better for Syrian refugees in neighbouring Lebanon, where the UN refugee agency began moving those living under canvas. “With this very harsh weather, shelters have been threatened and now that snow is hitting the Bekaa people are really in need of assistance,” UNHCR external relations officer Cecile Fradot told AFP.
“Today we are relocating families whose shelters have been flooded in the north,” she said.
In Syria itself, state television broadcast regular live reports from the snow-covered streets of Damascus, while activists in the battleground city of Homs posted images of a mosque in a rebel-held neighbourhood cloaked in white.
There was no respite for civilians from the 21-month conflict, however. Four children from one family were among as many as 10 civilians killed in a pre-dawn air strike just outside Homs, a watchdog reported.
The two women found dead near the northern West Bank city of Tulkarem - one from the ancient Samaritan community - had been posted as missing since Tuesday. A third passenger, believed to have been their taxi driver, was alive but reportedly in serious condition.
A man died in a landslide in Jenin, also in the northern West Bank, and a woman died in a house fire. The latest deaths, as well as that of the man who froze to death in Lebanon, raised to 11 the death toll reportedly linked to the weather since Sunday. An Israeli army spokeswoman said that on Tuesday, soldiers helped evacuate a bus carrying 30 Palestinian children, as well as an ambulance stuck in floodwaters in the Jenin area of the northern West Bank.
On the Israeli side, army helicopters rescued people from roofs and the tops of cars, and some 300 families from Bat Hefer, north of Tel Aviv, were evacuated after the Shekhem river burst its banks. In Lebanon, schools remained shut nationwide for a second day, as a meteorologist at Beirut airport reported 5.5 centimetres (more than two inches) of rain in 24 hours. In the mountains above Beirut, 10 centimetres (nearly four inches) of snow fell as low as 400 metres (1,300 feet). In Egypt, the search went on for 10 missing fishermen, and the port of Alexandria remained closed for a fourth straight day, state media reported.