Heavy snowfall, gales as winter storm hits Middle East

BEIRUT (AP) — Snow blanketed parts of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel on Wednesday, covering areas it has not reached in years, disrupting traffic and postponing vaccination campaigns against COVID-19 and even exams at some universities.

It snowed for the first time in years in Marjayoun in southern Lebanon, and in Bayda in northeast Libya. Gale force winds knocked out electricity in vast parts of Lebanon, forcing many Lebanese, already used to power cuts, to rely on generators for longer hours. Rescuers pulled four motorists out of their snow-covered cars, the National News Agency said.

The first snow this winter in the Syrian capital, Damascus, did not prevent the Premier League football tournament from going ahead, as Army Sports Club and Al-Karamah faced off despite the snow that covered the pitch, the Syrian Al-Watan daily reported .

In the mountains of Syria’s Sweida province, snow was as high as 15 centimetres, according to the official state news agency SANA. Roads in some provinces were blocked. In the central province of Hama, bulldozers shovelled snow to open roads while vehicles skidded on ice, causing traffic disruption. The University of Damascus called off mid-term exams scheduled in all its branches around Syria because of the extreme weather conditions.

The country’s ports remained open. Later, local authorities in the provinces of Sweida, Quneitra, Daraa and Tartous suspend school yesterday due to the storm and heavy snowfall.

People walk on a street as snow falls, in Damascus, Syria. PHOTO: AP

In the opposition-held northwestern Syria, civil defence teams have been building dirt mounds since Tuesday around camps for the displaced to prevent rain from flooding the crowded areas. Nearly three million displaced people live in northwestern Syria, mostly in tents and temporary shelters. Heavy rainfall last month damaged over 190 displacement sites, destroying and damaging over 10,000 tents.

In neighbouring Lebanon, Storm Joyce hit on Tuesday with gale force winds registering between 85 and 100 kilometres per hour (km/h). The storm is expected to get stronger. Breaking a warm spell, the storm brought heavy rainfall, a sharp drop in temperatures and the heaviest snow fall in Lebanon this year.

Snow is expected to cover areas of altitudes as low as 400 metres, according to the meteorological department. Nearly a dozen roads in eastern and northern Lebanon were closed to traffic because of the snow. A beach-side club and restaurant were submerged in water as waves nearly four metres high slammed onto the shore.

The Israeli Meteorological Service forecast heavy thunderstorms and cold temperatures across much of the country, with snowfall at higher altitudes expected later, including in Jerusalem. On Wednesday night, Israeli police closed the main road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem due to snow. Heavy snowfall covered the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights near the border with Syria.

In Jordan, the COVID-19 vaccination drive was suspended and schools and universities also put off classes. Jordan’s Prime Minister Bishr al-Khasawneh announced that yesterday was an official holiday for both the public and private sector due to the snow storm.

Director of the operating room of the Arabia Weather site, Osama al-Tarifi said snow has reached 20 metres in the mountains of Ajloun in northern Jordan, where snowfall has been non-stop since Tuesday night. Heavy snow is expected in the capital, Amman, on Wednesday.

Wind exceeded 100 km/h in some areas in Jordan. In Libya, snow blanketed the country’s northeast mountains as snowfall continued since Tuesday, covering forests and roads in some areas in the North African country. Residents of the Jabal al-Akhdar area in the far northeast part of Libya took their children out for fun, some making snowmen and others starting snowball fights.

In neighbouring Egypt, authorities in South Sinai province, cancelled touristic activities, including safaris and cruises.