Massive storm hits the Middle East

Linda Gradstein, The Media Line

Weather in the Middle East is usually not very interesting. In the summer, it’s hot, and in the winter it’s cool. Sometimes it rains.

But this week, it’s rained and rained and rained. Snow is also predicted for Jerusalem and Amman, a rare occurrence that has children in both cities anxiously watching the sky.

In Israel, the level of the Sea of Galilee rose on Tuesday by more than eight and a half inches — the highest rise for a single day since Israel began taking measurements in the 1920s, according to Uri Schor, the spokesman for Israel’s Water Authority.

“It’s really good news that there’s so much water,” Schor told The Media Line. “We are still in the midst of the storm. We expect the Sea of Galilee to go up even further in the next few days.”

From the Sea of Galilee the water is pumped throughout Israel by a system called the National Water Carrier. The heavy rainfall is welcomed in Israel where rain is often referred to as “rain of blessing.”

But the storm has also done damage in Israel. Three Arab citizens were killed in an accident on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway after attending an Orthodox Christmas celebration in Bethlehem. On Monday, a hiker in southern Israel was killed after he was swept away in a flash flood.

The Ayalon highway which runs through Tel Aviv was closed after heavy flooding in the area, snarling traffic throughout Tel Aviv.  Train stations in the area were closed due to flooding and passengers arriving at Ben Gurion airport were taken by us to Tel Aviv. The highway closure came after the Ayalon River, which is usually a dry river bed, flooded and Schor said the water was flowing at a speed of 440 square meters per second, the fastest in 20 years.

At least six Israelis were injured when trees were knocked over by winds gusting up to 80 miles per hour.

Trees were also toppled on the plazas of the Dome of The Rock mosque and the Western Wall below in Jerusalem’s Old city. Some 150 animals were endangered when mud slides and rains flooded a kennel of the Jerusalem Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Many of the animals were taken to temporary homes.

Just a few miles away in Jordan, the hilly areas in the south of the Kingdom had the season’s first snow. In the capital Amman, several neighborhoods flooded and traffic lights were damaged by the strong winds.

Especially affected were the almost 50,000 Syrian refugees living in tent camps in the Za’atari camp near the border between Jordan and Syria. Angry refugees attacked aid workers with sticks and stones after their tents were swept away. Police said seven aid workers were injured.

“The tents have been affected by the cold and rain and we are trying to move families to pre-fab mobile homes,” Ali Bibi, the liaison officer for the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR), told The Media Line. “We need a big international effort to meet the needs of the refugees. We estimate we need $500 million dollars.”

Bibi said 2,500 families are being moved into the prefab mobile homes that were donated by Saudi Arabia. His organization is also distributing kerosene heaters to the families who are still in tents. He said they need at least 12,000 more prefab units, each of which can house a family of five.

There are a total of 300,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan. The government has been providing them with medical care and education, and the United Nations has set up two large refugee camps. Bibi said Jordan is finding it increasingly difficult to cope with the influx of refugees and the international community must do more. 

“We need heaters, blankets, support and assistance,” Bibi said. “The Jordanian government has worked hard to help the refugees but if we have an additional influx they will not be able to cope.”

Back in Israel, water authority spokesman Schor said that the huge quantities of rain come after seven years of drought in Israel. In the book of Genesis in the Bible, he said, seven plentiful years were followed by seven lean years and starvation.

“Let’s hope we now have the seven good years,” he said. 

How much more rain will there be?

“I have no idea,” Schor replied. “You’ll have to ask the Creator of the World that one.”