GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – The Gaza Strip received its first shipment of industrial fuel in 45 days on Sunday, bringing much-needed relief to the coastal territory after a winter storm dumped rare snow across the region.
The storm, which began late Wednesday and saw temperatures dip below freezing, crippled the city of Jerusalem and leaving thousands without power in Israel and the neighboring West Bank.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described it as the worst storm in decades. It dumped up to two feet of snow on Jerusalem, a huge amount for a city that often goes entire winters without a snowstorm. Temperatures at this time of year are usually about 50 to 60 Fahrenheit, and just two weeks ago had hovered around 70 Fahrenheit.
Gaza, located on the Mediterranean coast, experienced its first snowfall in some 20 years, but most of the damage was caused by flooding.
A lack of fuel has hampered rescue efforts in Gaza, where an estimated 40,000 residents fled flooded homes. The storm let up Sunday, but authorities in the region still struggled to clear roads and repair downed power lines.
Gaza has suffered from chronic fuel shortages since the Hamas militant group seized power in 2007, prompting Israel and Egypt to impose a blockade on the territory. But the situation has worsened since a coup in neighboring Egypt last July. The country's new military rulers have tightened the blockade and destroyed a network of smuggling tunnels that were used to ship cheap fuel into the territory.
While the rival Palestinian government in the West Bank can send fuel to Gaza through Israel, Gaza's Hamas rulers have refused to accept the shipments, saying they cannot afford a new tax.
Palestinian border official Raed Fattouh said Sunday's Israeli fuel shipment was paid for by Qatar, an oil rich Gulf country that has aided Hamas in the past. Officials said Gazans would now have roughly 12 hours of electricity a day, up from the recent level of six hours.
The storm has come at a difficult time for Gaza. Recurring power outages have led to the suspension of many health care programs and services, including waste water treatment. Overwhelmed sewage facilities have been forced to dump untreated waste into the Mediterranean, and long lines are often formed outside bakeries while people wait to buy bread.
Despite the blockade, Israel over the weekend sent diesel fuel for heating and four water pumps as a humanitarian gesture.
Hamas authorities said roughly 40,000 people were forced to flee their homes as a result of flooding. Most were able to stay with relatives, but the United Nations said about 10,000 people sought shelter in schools and other public buildings.
On Sunday, residents began returning to their homes to inspect damage and repair what they could, fixing leaky roofs, windows and cracks in the walls, and trying to remove water from homes.
"It's time for hard work, to restart our lives again," said Ihab Saed, 23, whose family's small home was damaged by rainwater and sewage.
One man died from smoke inhalation after burning coal for warmth in his house, health officials said.
Israel also was reeling from the weekend storm. Some 14,000 homes remained without power, the Israel Electric Corp. said.
By Sunday afternoon, Israel managed to open the two main highways in and out of Jerusalem, and limited bus service was restored inside the city. Authorities urged motorists to stay off the roads, and public transportation was expected to be halted after nightfall as temperatures, which had risen to about 50 Fahrenheit, dropped back toward the freezing point.
"This morning I want to go to work but I can't because you see all the ice on the streets. I can't move my car," said Jerusalem resident Itzchak Haringman, who helped push a taxi out of the snow before hopping in.
Four Israelis were killed in weather-related incidents, police said. Schools were closed in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The storm also caused heavy disruptions in the West Bank, where roads were blocked and electricity was out for two or three days in many areas. In Ramallah, officials said one woman was forced to give birth in a municipal car trying to take her to the hospital. Municipal workers had to carry another woman in labor on a stretcher for half a mile to get her to an ambulance, said spokesman Yousif Shayeb.
"Electricity connects you to the world. We lived two days without electricity and felt we were disconnected from the world. No TV, no Internet, no radio," said Fida Naser a university student from the town of Dora in southern West Bank.
In Bethlehem, the snow gave the traditional birthplace of Jesus a Christmas atmosphere. "I took my seven-year-old boy, Adam, and made a snow man, and played with the kids of our neighborhood," said Haneen Ayesh, a 24-year-old woman.
"The best view ever in my life is seeing the snow covering the courtyard of the Nativity Church and the Christmas tree," she said.
In neighboring Jordan, King Abdullah II caused a stir by showing up to help push a car out of the snow Saturday. The king stopped his black SUV to help a stranded motorist, shocking his security guards, who scrambled to keep curious onlookers away from him.
Amateur video showed a crowd cheering Abdullah, who wore boots and a red-and-white checkered head dress.