Severe flooding in Gaza forces thousands to flee homes

Emergency crews use boats to evacuate families in Gaza, while motorists are stranded by snow in Jerusalem

A powerful winter storm has caused massive flooding and knocked out power in the occupied Palestinian territories, and has forced thousands of Gazan residents from their homes, officials said during the weekend.

The downpour that began late Wednesday was part of a storm that covered parts of Israel and the West Bank with snow and paralyzed Jerusalem.

Emergency workers used fishing boats to evacuate thousands from their homes and to provide food, blankets and flashlights to hundreds of others caught in high water.

At least 10,000 people were forced from their homes, and the exact number of those affected remained unclear. An earlier report from The Associated Press cited officials as saying up to 40,000 had to leave their homes.

Rescue efforts were hampered by fuel shortages and power cuts caused by Israel’s blockade of the territory – and compounded by Egypt's recent tightening of security at its border crossing with Gaza.

After the storm is over, "the world community needs to bring effective pressure to end the blockade of Gaza," said Chris Gunnes, a spokesman for the U.N. aid agency in the territory.

Gazans "must be freed from these man-made constraints to deal with the impact of a natural calamity such as this," Gunnes said.

On Friday, Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of the Hamas administration, also called for Israeli authorities to allow fuel into the territory.

"Gaza survived two wars (against Israel), and it will walk out of this," he told Reuters while wearing a heavy coat and the yellow jumper of emergency workers as he toured the affected areas overnight.

The United Nations said its staff had been working around the clock to provide emergency services.

"In the West Bank, dozens of emergency response units have been delivering food parcels, mattresses and blankets," Gunness said.

Meanwhile, crews in the West Bank worked to restore electricity after 60 percent of the area lost power, but severe weather conditions were slowing progress, Director General of the Jerusalem Electricity Company Said Hisham Omari told the Palestinian news network Maan.

Power had been restored to large parts of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and crews were working to fix Ramallah’s electricity, Omari said, but that accounts for less than half of the West Bank’s power grid.

Jerusalem was also paralyzed on Friday by its fiercest snowstorm in years, with its mayor calling out the army to help stranded motorists.

"We are battling a storm of rare ferocity," Mayor Nir Barkat said in a news release as snow in the Old City piled up to around 15 inches, while outlying areas had much deeper drifts.

Main roads into Jerusalem were closed, and police appealed to drivers not to attempt the journey.

Schools were closed for a second day Friday, and most residents appeared to be heeding advice to stay home.

"We have asked people living in Jerusalem not to drive in private cars unless they have four-wheel-drive because of the danger on icy streets," police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told news agency Agence France-Presse.

He said that by mid-morning police had been called to help about 1,500 drivers in the city and on the roads leading to it, and that about 1,000 stranded travelers were given shelter at the Jerusalem International Conference Center on the city's western edge.

Rosenfeld said another 400 to 500 people had been taken to the Ofer military base on the northeastern road into Jerusalem.

"Only when the storm has eased can we start clearing roadways," Barkat said. "We are at the moment using all means to rescue those caught in the storm."

While lower-lying areas of Israel were spared the snow, heavy rain accompanied by high winds caused flooding in many places.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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