A bruising winter storm brought severe weather to the Middle East on Thursday, forcing the closure of roads and schools and blanketing already miserable Syrian refugee camps with snow.
The nearly three-year-old conflict in Syria has killed an estimated 126,000 people and displaced millions of others, including more than two million who have fled across the border and thousands who are living in makeshift campsites.
Footage posted online by activists showed war-battered areas of Syria shrouded in snow, and at least two small children have died from the cold, according to a spokesman for the opposition National Coalition.
In tent camps across neighbouring Lebanon thousands of Syrian refugees huddled on muddy floors under plastic sheeting that provided little relief from the icy winds.
“I hate the cold,” said 13-year-old Sakr in a camp in Saadnayel, in the mountains outside Beirut, where children, many without hats or gloves, sneezed and rubbed their hands together.
“When it snows, the meltwater becomes mud inside the tents, which collapse on our heads because of the weight of snow.”
More than 800,000 Syrians have fled to Lebanon since the civil war erupted nearly three years ago, many sheltering in tents and unfinished buildings.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said it was working with the Lebanese army to distribute blankets and provide money for heating fuel but remained “concerned” about the situation.
Lebanon’s weather service forecasts heavy rains through Friday, with snow above 500 metres. In the Bekaa valley where most of the tent camps are concentrated, temperatures were expected to drop below freezing overnight.
Residents of the sprawling Zaatari camp in northern Jordan, home to 120,000 Syrian refugees, fared slightly better as the storm brought heavy rains but no snow. Authorities said they have set up 20,000 caravans, but that thousands of people are still in tents.
The inclement weather also delayed the first-ever international UN airlift, set to fly from the Kurdish region of northern Iraq to the town of Qamishli in northeastern Syria.
“When it will start is difficult to say – I think the authorities in Qamishli are going to check conditions at the airfield on Friday,” UNHCR regional spokesman Peter Kessler said.
Banks, schools, offices shut
Elsewhere in the region the weather sent temperatures plunging and brought heavy snow at higher elevations, including in Jerusalem, where schools were closed and conditions were expected to worsen.
The Israeli Meteorological Service forecast a maximum temperature of three degrees Celsius for Jerusalem, falling to below freezing at night.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cancelled a planned reception for the foreign press due to “inclement weather”.
In the occupied West Bank snow fell on Bethlehem’s Manger Square, the historic site of the birth of Jesus Christ. Most West Bank schools were closed but roads were generally passable and no serious accidents were reported.
In the Gaza Strip, which has been in the grip of a fuel crisis that has affected hospitals, sanitation services and sewerage, torrential rains filled the streets with floodwater and overflowing sewage, and forced the closure of schools and banks.
Hamas-run authorities said about 40 homes were flooded in Rafah and Khan Yunis, and that residents were sheltering in police stations.
Most residents had to rely on generators for heat as the fuel crisis has led to regular power outages of up to 16 hours a day.
The deteriorating conditions even prompted Gaza’s Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya to appeal for help from Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas of the rival Fatah party, Hamas’s official news agency said.
The two men discussed in a telephone call “the humanitarian situation the Gaza Strip is suffering” and “ending division” between the bitter rivals, Hamas’s Al-Rai news agency said.
In Jordan the government closed ministries and other offices on account of heavy snow and rain and urged residents to stay indoors. Banks and schools were also shut.
In Egypt’s Sinai, heavy rains caused power cuts and two police were injured when their car overturned on a muddy road.
The arid coastal Levant enjoys mild weather for much of the year, but winter often brings heavy rains that snarl traffic in cities ill-adapted to it.