JERUSALEM — Jerusalem was transformed into a winter wonderland on Thursday after heavy overnight snowfall turned the Holy City and much of the region white, bringing hordes of excited children onto the streets.
As temperatures plummeted, the bitter winds and rain that have battered the Middle East since Sunday turned into snow, blanketing the Holy Land in white and closing schools and businesses.
As dawn broke, at least 10 centimetres (four inches) of snow had settled in Jerusalem, which lies at an altitude of about 800 metres (2,625 feet), giving its pine-covered hills the unusual aspect of a ski resort.
During the height of the snowfall, buses were cancelled, but service gradually resumed as the storm tapered off and Israeli public radio said the country's main highway had reopened.
The agriculture ministry was to ask the government to recognise the storm as a disaster and compensate them for lost crops, but for children -- and no shortage of adults -- the snow was a rare chance for snow fights and snowmen.
"Look at our snowman!" Manar Barhoum shouted in the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Beit Safafa, pointing proudly at a four-foot effort, complete with a carrot nose and eyes made of cucumber slices.
"It's a salad snowman," her mother Miriam laughed, as she tried to use cherry tomatoes to form a mouth, before giving up and using a curved branch instead.
With snow a rarity in the normally temperate Middle East, many resorted to using trays or bin bags to slide down some of the city's many steep hills, although some people were also seen dragging sledges through the streets.
Yoni, 32, was out with his three boys in St Simon park in west Jerusalem.
"This is a true celebration for every person in the city. People are out on the streets, greeting each other," he said.
"We went out with a ruler to measure the snow's height, and outside our house it was 18 centimetres high."
A handful of visitors also turned up from Tel Aviv, where snow is almost unheard of, to join in the winter fun. They somehow reached Jerusalem despite the closure of the main highway connecting the two cities.
Snow ploughs were out clearing the main roads which had also been gritted, but very few vehicles could be seen.
With less than two weeks until Israel's January 22 general election, campaign plans were put on hold for the day, and many electoral posters were almost obliterated by snow, AFP correspondents said.
The winding streets of Jerusalem's Old City were almost completely deserted, with only a handful of shops open.
In Gaza, cold weather and heavy rain flooded several of the tunnels running between the territory and Egypt, and civil defence officials rescued two people trapped inside.
"A number of tunnels have been damaged by the rain. Some are still open today and working but most have been closed because of the weather," a source on the border told AFP.
The storm has also taken its toll in the West Bank, where five people have been killed in weather-related incidents. The latest casualty to be named was Maher al-Bariya, a lawyer whose car was swept away in floods earlier this week.
In the West Bank city of Ramallah, children and adults, including some policeman who stopped their cruiser for an impromptu snowball fight, were having fun.
Dawla Suleiman, 23, was with a group of women, giggling as they tossed snowballs at each other.
"It's a beautiful day. We feel far away from work, and it's a time to play and enjoy the snow," she said, beaming.
In the northern West Bank village of Qusra, 48-year-old Abdelhamid Qusrawi was also marvelling at the snow, which he said was the most he'd seen in a decade.
"In 1991 we had more snow, but in the past 10 years, this is the most that we've seen," he said.
"I like the snow, but it is cold for me. I went outside and played with my small nephews and they were all against me, throwing snowballs at me, so I had to escape inside!"