JERUSALEM — The pilgrims here rightly wilt in the swelter of August as they tramp from one holy site to another. They should come in winter.
Every once in a while, it snows.
The heaviest December snowfall in 50 years, according to the Israeli weather service, fell Thursday morning on Jerusalem, which was briefly cut off from the rest of the country as access roads were closed.
It was also winter white on the summits of the occupied territory of the West Bank, from Jenin to Ramallah to Hebron.
As snow and freezing temperatures descended on the region Wednesday, the United Nations said it was “extremely concerned” for refugees from the brutal civil war in neighboring Syria. Some areas of Lebanon, Turkey and northern Syria were battered overnight Tuesday by snow, sharp winds and cold, heavy rains, causing misery for hundreds of thousands of Syrians in camps and shanties.
But on the slopes of Mount Hermon in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, the turn in the weather was far more welcome. The resort there was predicting the arrival of vast crowds to take part in the extremely short ski season in the Holy Land, which lasts for a couple of weeks, depending on the year. Hermon, close to the disputed border with Syria, near a U.N.-patrolled demilitarized zone, got almost two feet of snow.
Sections of Highway 1 connecting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were closed in the twisty passes for a few hours in stretches blanketed with snow, but the road opened as the snow began to melt and the flakes turned to slush, then to rain.
The winter storm system is also causing flash flooding in the dry river beds around the Dead Sea. The Negev desert might see an extremely rare snowfall on Friday.
In the soaked Gaza Strip, subject to Israeli naval and air blockades and routinely cut off from trade and travel with Egypt, students reportedly waded through knee-high waters to get to school Wednesday. Electricity to operate pumps to drain the water (and process sewage) are subject to increasing blackouts because of the high cost and scarcity of fuel.
Israeli media reported that Secretary of State John F. Kerry, an intrepid New Englander, will arrive as scheduled Thursday night for his ninth round of meetings to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians -- though a sit-down with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be postponed a day.
Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.