A rare and heavy winter snowstorm hit parts of Israel, including Jerusalem, Thursday and into Friday, prompting school closures and blocking access to the capital.
Police and military rescue units began a massive operation to rescue hundreds of stranded drivers stuck on roads near Jerusalem early Friday morning, as mounting snow made approaches to the area impassable.
The capital saw some 10 centimeters — nearly four inches — of snow on Thursday, a December record, and forecasters predicted the white stuff would continue falling late into Friday.
The wet weather, typical of an early winter storm, combined with unusually low temperatures to blanket the capital and other mountainous areas, including the West Bank, the Galilee and the Golan Heights, in snow.
Officials said the roads into Jerusalem would remain closed until at least 6 a.m. Friday and asked drivers to not try to reach the city overnight or Friday morning.
Hundreds of drivers were being evacuated to the International Convention Center, or Binyanei Hauma, in Jerusalem, where they would be forced to wait until roads became passable.
Thousands still without power in Jerusalem area IDF forces responding to assist thousands stranded on Hgws shelters set up at Binyanei Hauma
— Israel News Feed (@IsraelHatzolah) December 13, 2013
Elsewhere, heavy rains and punishing winds brought down trees and flooded out roads.
In Modi’in Ilit, a 1-year-old baby was moderately to seriously injured late Thursday night after a roof collapsed on a modular building being used a synagogue. Four other people were lightly injured.
Classes in Jerusalem and the Gush Etzion settlement block south of the city were called off Thursday and Friday as authorities braced for snowfall to continue into the weekend.
The snow began falling in Jerusalem shortly after sunrise Thursday and thin layers of snow began to form on cars. In elevated neighborhoods such as Gilo, the snow piled up, and residents huddled in bus stops, waiting for buses that had temporarily stopped running.
By Thursday night, flurries were reported as low as the settlement of Beit Horon, which at 630 meters above sea level, rarely sees snow fall.
School in Kfar Kara, Um el-Fahm and Rahat were canceled Thursday due to flooding. The IDF’s elite 669 search and rescue unit retrieved 10 trapped passengers from a commercial vehicle that was swept away by flood waters in Nahal Gerar, north of Beersheba. The passengers, nine of whom were children, were airlifted to Beersheba’s Soroka Medical Center in fair condition.
The Education Ministry set up a hotline for parents to get information about school arrangements. The number is 02-6222211.
The stormy weather was expected to persist into the weekend, with snow reaching elevated areas as far south as the Negev Desert on Friday.
On Wednesday, high winds, torrential rain and floods inflicted damage in many areas, with some injuries caused by flying debris.
Over 24 hours between Wednesday and Thursday morning, some 103 millimeters (four inches) of rain — the monthly average — fell in the capital and 35 mm (1.4 inches) in Tel Aviv.
There were several incidents of people caught in flash floods that swept their cars away.
One man was reported missing after storm waters rushed through a wadi where he was hiking in the Judean desert.
Flash flood chasers streamed down to wadis around the Dead Sea region in the hope of catching the storm waters as they pounded down from the Jerusalem mountains, but some became trapped as roads were flooded in the surge.
Jerusalem authorities had prepared to counter the snow, with 90 tons of salt as well as snowplows being readied. Other municipalities in the country’s north had also braced for snowfall, notably Safed and neighboring towns in the mountainous northern Galilee and elevated communities in the Golan Heights.
“Snow in Jerusalem is a cause for celebration for Jerusalemites and the many visitors who come to see the world’s most beautiful city painted white,” said Mayor Nir Barkat, who dropped in on the city’s public works department to check on preparations for the storm Wednesday. “We hope the snow won’t disappoint, especially for Jerusalem’s excited children, who are looking forward to it.”
Inclement weather was also felt in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas’s health ministry said 30 people were evacuated to hospitals after heavy rains caused flooding on Wednesday. Gaza’s Interior Ministry said the roof collapsed on a house in the coastal strip, injuring three people, and families were moved into shelters because of flooding.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.