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Mideast A Winter Wonderland

Snow lay thick on the domes of the mosques and churches of Jerusalem's Old City and on the battlements of the ancient wall that surrounds it. In the Negev Desert, Bedouins awoke to find a thick white layer on the backs of their camels, sheep and goats.

A rare storm swept the Middle East late this week, dumping as much as three feet of snow in the hardest-hit areas, blocking roads and cutting off cities throughout the region.

The storm began Thursday and has dropped about a foot of snow on many parts of Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. The snowfall blocked most mountain roads and disrupted traffic on the highway between Beirut and Damascus, Syria. Strong winds lashed Lebanon's 120-mile Mediterranean coast, uprooting telephone and power poles. The weather has caused blocked roads, stranded cars and cut power lines. On the coastal road between Beirut and Sidon, five people were injured in a traffic accident, police said.



Snow and unusually low temperatures were reported in several other countries in the Middle East, but only Egypt reported fatalities due to the weather. Police there said heavy downpours and fog caused 14 separate traffic accidents, killing three people and injuring 71.

At least 15 inches of snow piled up in Jerusalem and in other hilltop areas in Israel, creating picturesque scenes but closing roads and causing traffic jams. In the traditionally Arab section of the city, a house collapsed under the snow's weight, trapping two Palestinians inside. One was extracted with minor injuries. Rescue workers managed to talk to the other on a cellular telephone as they dug their way in, Israel radio reported.

All told, six people have died as a result of this weather, including a Palestinian man in Jerusalem whose roof collapsed. Two homeless men died from exposure, two motorists were killed in accidents on slippery roads and one man perished in a fire caused by a kerosene heater.

The northern Negev Desert was covered in snow for the first time in half a century.

"It's on the camels. It's on the sheep. Everything is covered with snow," said Mohammed Abu Jabbar, a young Bedouin man.

Beersheba, the largest town in the Negev, was cut off from the rest of the country. Some of the Bedouin who live in shacks were hospitalized with mild frostbite. The army distributed blankets and food in Bedouin villages.

Big snowstorms rarely hit Jerusalem. The unusual weather brought hundreds of residents into the streets and the parks. Some snapped pictures of palm trees glistening as they sagged under the weght of the snow. Children built snowmen and threw snowballs at each other and passersby. Even some young Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall, in their black hats and coats, took time off from prayers to throw snowballs.

In the West Bank, Israeli soldiers and Palestinian police cooperated in rescuing hundreds of Palestinians and Jewish settlers whose cars were stranded.

Heavy rain also fell in parts of Israel, flooding some streets and backing up traffic.

Despite the damage, the storm has had a positive side. The Sea of Galilee, Israel's main source of drinking water, was rising after being depleted dangerously because of a drought last year.

Ski operators at Mt. Hermon, Israel's only ski resort, were also happy about the storm. The mountain at the northern edge of the Golan Heights was closed last year, when little snow fell. But operators said 23 feet of snow were already on the ground at the upper level.

Across the frontier, roads in the Lebanese mountains were blocked, although the Beirut-Damascus highway was reopened later with snowplows.

In Jordan, heavy snowfall blocked most streets in Amman and isolated remote villages in the north and center of the country. The blizzard, which follows three years of drought that battered Jordan and other countries in the Middle East, sent many Jordanians to the streets to build snowmen, skate on icy roads and sidewalks and throw snowballs from rooftops at pedestrians.

In Syria, some of the roads around Damascus and the port of Latakia were closed, and in Jordan, soldiers rescued 200 people who were trapped in snow or suffered in snow-related accidents, an army spokesman said.