Ben-Gurion Airport briefly closed its runways to departing flights as a heavy dust storm blanketing most of Israel worsened Wednesday afternoon, covering the country in a fine dust and sending air pollution numbers skyward.
Eleven flights were delayed due to the weather conditions, according to the Ynet news website, as sand blew in from Saudi Arabia. Arrivals to the Tel Aviv airport were not affected.
US First Lady Michelle Obama was set to fly to Jordan when an official traveling with her said the flight was delayed “due to a weather call.” The official, speaking on condition of anonymity pending a formal announcement, gave no further details.
Obama was on a two-nation visit to the Middle East to promote a girls’ education initiative and was set to fly in from Qatar.
The storm engulfed the Jordanian capital of Amman where dust masks were going for just over $1 and the sun was a pale disk.
In Israel, airliners Israir and Arkia announced earlier that all domestic flights had been canceled due to the poor visibility.
Air pollution levels in Tel Aviv rose steadily on Wednesday, reaching 95 times higher than normal by evening. In Jerusalem, the air pollution was recorded at 18 times higher than normal. In southern Israel, the pollution improved slightly by Wednesday, as compared to the day before. Pollution was still 12 times higher than usual in Eilat, and nine times higher in Arad.
In the Golan Heights, an IDF soldier was moderately injured after he was blown off his tank by the fierce winds. The soldier slammed his head on the tank and was evacuated to the hospital in an army helicopter.
The sandstorm is expected to peter out by Thursday morning, only to see scatter rain showers in parts of the country.
Following weeks of irregular weather patterns, Israel was hit Tuesday night with a second major sandstorm in two months.
Flights in and out of the southern resort city of Eilat were canceled Wednesday morning amid low visibility and stormy weather. The Airport Authority announced that Ovda Airport on the outskirts of Eilat would be completely shut shown until the afternoon and that the Sde Dov Airport near Tel Aviv would be closed except for landings.
Tuesday saw dozens of flights diverted from Amman due to the storm. One plane from Dubai was forced to make an emergency landing in Tel Aviv.
According to the Israeli Meteorological Service, the dust clouds are caused by strong eastern winds blowing from the north of Saudi Arabia and causing air pollution levels up to 30 times higher than average.
The Magen David Adom emergency health service said in a statement that people suffering from breathing problems should stay indoors with closed windows and avoid strenuous activity outside.
MDA extended its recommendation to pregnant women, the elderly, people with chronic heart conditions and those suffering from lung conditions. It also recommended that athletes avoid training outside throughout the day.
The Israel Electric Corporation announced that it was preparing for the possibility of “failures in the power network” due to “sandstorms, dust clouds and clouds and lightning storms.”
The company said the combination of dust and rain could cause sporadic power outages “and is preparing appropriately.”
The IEC is under fire for its slow response to massive blackouts that struck Israel in the beginning of last week.
Israel, along with much of the northern Middle East, suffered a huge sandstorm in early September that lasted for several days. According to the Environment Protection Ministry, the storm in September was the worst sandstorm in the country’s history.
Air pollution levels were at their worst in 75 years during that storm, and measured 173 times higher than average in Jerusalem, 51 times higher than average in the Negev, and in the Galilee, 32 times higher than average.