Israelis Bear Up Under Severe Winter Blizzard and Flooding

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ISRAEL: the land of ripe Jaffa oranges, glowing in the Mediterranean sun; of tropical fish and coral reefs by dazzling Red Sea beaches.

But on Feb. 24, it became the land of 100,000 frozen chickens with the feathers still on, victims of frostbite when snow caved in the roofs of their coops in the Galilee hills.

Israel was paralyzed on Feb. 25 and Jerusalem was cut off by freak storms that mixed rain, hail, and snow. This was Jerusalem's fourth snowstorm in the wettest, coldest winter the city has endured in more than half a century, but its severity caught many by surprise.

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As a blizzard piled more than four feet of snow on the town of Metullah near the Lebanese border and blanketed the domes and minarets of Jerusalem under nearly three feet, schools, shops, and offices stayed closed, bus services shut down, and Israelis left home only if they had to.

"People are basically in their houses, trying to keep warm between the blackouts," says Gloria Rahat, contacted at her settlement in the Golan Heights.

On Emek Refaim, normally one of Jerusalem's busier shopping streets, the unplowed road was almost deserted on Feb. 25. Less than one-third of the local businesses were open, and after having served only three customers in as many hours, fruit merchant Yitzhak Mor was brushing the snow off his grapefruit and closing up.

"I don't know why I bothered coming in," he shrugged.

POLICE urged residents not to use their cars, and the city suspended its urban bus service, as junction after junction became blocked by disabled and abandoned vehicles.

In coastal Tel Aviv, the weather was too warm for snow, but perfect for flooding, as the rain poured down. The city's airport was still open, but this was little consolation to Jerusalemites who had planned to fly: The road to the coast was blocked by snow.

For some, this weather is familiar.

"This reminds me of Moscow," says Sergei Makarov, a recent immigrant from the former Soviet Union. "But in Moscow I had everything I needed," he says. "I had my coat, my boots, my fur hat. Of course, I left them all behind when I came here, and now I regret it."

For others, the snow was an excuse to put old habits to more playful purposes. In Arab east Jerusalem, Palestinian youths who would normally be keeping the intifadah alive by throwing stones at cars with Israeli license plates were instead pelting passersby with snowballs.

At the same time, the extreme weather has had more unfortunate side effects. A government commission was set up on Feb. 23 to choose which parts of the country should be declared disaster areas after heavy rains destroyed tens of millions of dollars worth of crops and agricultural buildings in northern Israel.

The snow, killing livestock and threatening to flood more fields when it melts, makes matters worse. After nearly three years of drought, the intensity of the rain has been enough to make farmers cry and fill the Sea of Galilee to within 80 inches of overflowing.

But the weather does please some. The hills of the Judean desert that normally sprout just enough scrub to keep a few scrawny sheep and goats alive now are covered in a thick coat of lush grass. The Bedouin shepherds are in for a fat year.

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