Massive snowstorm shut Jerusalem down last week
Police warn residents to stay indoors; Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Highway cloes; man dies after falling off roof while trying to repair leak; thousands in J’salem left without power; Israel opens Gaza crossing to allow entry of gas, water pumps.
Follow the live blog from Haaretz & STUNNING PICS from Leon Reich.
LIVE BLOG by Eli Ashkenazi, Yaniv Kubovich, Nir Hasson and HAARETZ
PICTURES provided by Leon Reich
Heavy storms continued throughout Israel on Friday, causing traffic disruptions and power outages across the country, floods in southern regions, a brief closure of Ben-Gurion International Airport, and a measure of excitement among the nation’s many snow-lovers.
Thousands of people in and around Jerusalem were left without power. A hastily assembled array of relief services, beefed up by Israeli army troops, came to the aid of hundreds of motorists who were trapped in their vehicles, some for up to 10 hours.
Speaking on the radio, Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat described the snowstorm as a “tsunami,” for which the municipality was unprepared. The city set up several improvised snow-havens, granting shelter to hundreds of the snowed-in masses, many of whom had come to the capital to celebrate what is usually a much less torrid event.
LIVE BLOG (runs in reverse):
00:48 A.M.: Israel Electric Company says it has reconnected most of Jerusalem homes back to the power grid. Announces 94.5 percent of Jerusalem residents have electricity. 13,000 household still without power.
00:38 A.M.: The Israeli Football Association announced that two premier league soccer matches scheduled for Saturday – Bnei Sakhnin v. Beitar Jerusalem and Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona v. Bnei Yehuda Tel Aviv – are postponed. The association will hold another consultation Saturday morning to decide regarding the other games scheduled for that day. The date the postponed matches are to be held has yet to be decided.
11:07 P.M.: Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Highway reopens after brief closure.
10:35 P.M.: Some 50,000 households – mostly in Jerusalem and the settlements – still don’t have power.
9:50 P.M.: Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Highway closes to traffic due to flooding of Ayalon River.
9:01 P.M.: Storm in Safed intensifies; snow levels reach almost 2 feet.
8:50 P.M.: Israel Police say Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Highway to close within an hour due to floods.
8:20 P.M.: Israel Railways to operate two free trains on Saturday from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and Haifa. First train due to depart at 11 A.M. and the second at 2 P.M.
7:10 P.M.: Rishon Letzion man dies after falling off the roof of his house while attempting to repair a leak caused by the storm.
6:15 P.M.: Snowfall reported in the southern city of Dimona.
6:10 P.M.: All roads leading to the Golan Heights and the city of Safed closed for traffic.
5:50 P.M.: Israel Electric Corp says power restored to about half of the residents of Jerusalem and surrounding neighborhoods.
4:45 P.M. Economy Minister Naftali Bennett instructs his ministry to approve all requests to employ workers over Shabbat in order to allow for rescue and repair operations in light of the storm.
4:25 P.M. Snowfall resumes in Jerusalem and is expected to continue until early Saturday morning. Israel Police and the Jerusalem municipality instruct residents to stay indoors.
4:20 P.M. Residents report landslide in East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, which they say endangers the foundations of three residential buildings that have already begun to crack. According to residents, the municipality recently conducted renovations in the area, but saved money by not building a supporting wall. This wall, they said, could have prevented the landslide.
4:10 P.M. After holding a meeting with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, security services and emergency rescue services, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says, “We are prepared in case the weather continues and I request all citizens listen to the instructions of the authorities.”
“From snowy Jerusalem, I wish everyone a peaceful Sabbath, especially to the police and soldiers, Magen David Adom https://www.sajr.co.za/images/default-source/places/snow.jpg” />
1:38 P.M.: The kibbutz movement and the Mate Yehuda regional council are considering the evacuation of thier residents who were cut off from electricity. In case such a decision is made, kibbutzim and moshavim in central Israel will host the evacuees.
1:30 P.M.: Route 1 between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is still closed to traffic, as is a portion of route 6 and sections of Ayalon highway.
11:46: A.M.: Public Security Minister says it will take days to repair the damage caused by the storm. All in all some 2,400 people were aided by relief services.
11:20 A.M.: Seeking to evaluate the storm’s impact on cities in the West Bank, the IDF has contacted Palestinian Authority representatives. According to an IDF officer, the storm is creating similar problems in the PA territories- but that at the present time, no aid is being given to the West Bank’s Palestinian population. “But if we will need to – we will help there, too,” he added.
11:03 A.M.: Evacuation of all drivers trapped in route 443 completed. Security Ministry aid convoys making their way towards Mevaseret Zion and Beit Horon area. Snow is accumulating on the peaks of Jordan’s Edom Mountains, near Eilat.
10:38 A.M.: Air traffic to and from Israel was shut off for some 40 minutes due to thick clouds over Ben Gurion Airport. Two commercial aircraft that were en route to Israel were diverted to Larnaca in Cyprus for landing, and will be flying to Israel shotrly.
10:08 A.M.: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch and Israel Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino on Friday morning, and received updates regarding police and army efforts to rescue drivers stuck in their vehicles on roads throughout Israel.
Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon also notified the prime minister that the IDF will continue assisting civilian rescue services for as long as necessary.
9:16 A.M.: Residents in almost all of Jerusalem’s neighbourhoods have reported blackouts, most of which have been caused by trees collapsing on power lines due to the snow. The problem is most prevalent in the city’s older neighbourhoods, which have larger trees and more outdated power infrastructure. There have been widespread power outages reported in Kiryat Yovel, Ramat Beit Hakerem, downtown Jerusalem, and Ora, a small town outside of the city.
Outages were also reported in Jerusalem’s suburbs: Abu Ghosh, Neve Ilan, Tzur Hadassah, Mevo Beitar, Givat Ze’ev, Givon, Beit Zayit, Gush Etzion, Beit El, Bar Giora, Hes Harim, Ma’ale Hahamisha, Tzuba, as well as settlements in Samaria and the South Hebron Hills.
9:01 A.M.: MK Ariel Attias was one of the thousands of individuals stuck on the roads to Jerusalem last night. Attias was stuck in his vehicle for 12 hours, and was rescued at 8:00 A.M., and taken to the Ofer military base outside of Jerusalem. “This was a total failure. It’s completely unreasonable that in 2013, Israel’s capital is paralyzed,” said Attias. “Where were all of the preparations? The ploughs and the salters? There were children here, people stuck without gas. People could have frozen to death,” continued Attias.
According to the MK, the IDF and the Israel Police did not attempt to assist the people stuck on the roads overnight. “No one talks to you, every many for himself. There was no one to call, the police and the municipality didn’t answer. In the end, I saw an army jeep, and asked them to pull me out of the snow.”
8:40 A.M.: Thousands of Jerusalem residents were left without power during the night. Roughly 700 people were stuck in their cars on the roads near Jerusalem, and were rescued during the early morning. Hundreds more are still waiting for rescue.
8:35 A.M.: The Israel Police have called on citizens to refrain from driving. The southbound Ayalon freeway is covered in ice, and is very dangerous.
8:28 A.M.: Jerusalem resident Avi Levi told Haaretz that he has been stuck two kilometers from Jerusalem since Thursday evening. “Fortunately I went food shipping yesterday, so I had what to eat, but soon I’ll have to start eating raw potatoes,” he said with a smile, though like many others stuck on the roads, he was full of criticism for the police. “They should have closed the roads. Before I left I called the municipality’s call centre and they told me the roads were open,” said Levi. “When the police want to close a road, they put an officer every two meters. Not a single plough passed by here all night. Police cars that went by didn’t stop to see how the people were doing. It’s stupidity.”
7:41 A.M.: Snow fell in northern Israel overnight. School was cancelled in Safed, and roads leading to the city were closed. 10 centimeters of snow also fell in the northern Golan Heights, and public transportation in the area has been shut down, and school was cancelled as well.
Capital unprepared for storm’s severity
Roads to and from Jerusalem were closed Thursday night and school there was cancelled for Friday as the heaviest December storm since 1953 fell on the capital city.
Snow began falling in Jerusalem Thursday morning. The winter weather system, which began Tuesday night, intensified across the country.
Police blocked traffic on roads leading to the capital in both directions until 6 A.M. Friday, after snow fell on Highways 1 and 443. Highway 60 was also blocked in both directions between Gush Etzion and Ha’okfim Junction. The wintery weather is expected to continue today, and schools will be closed in Jerusalem, Ofakim and Arad.
Mount Hermon saw more snow Thursday, totaling 60 centimeters since Tuesday. Snow also pelted the northern city of Safed Thursday evening. Dozens of millimeters of rain have fallen in the greater Tel Aviv region, the Sharon and the Galilee since Wednesday night.
Schools in the capital and its environs were closed Thursday, as well as in Rahat, Umm al-Fahm, the regional councils of Ma’ale Iron, Neve Midbar and Al Kasum, and in Ofra, Psagot and Beit El. The Education Ministry has called upon parents to stay updated via the municipal hotline in their locality, by calling the school itself, or on the ministry’s Facebook page.
There were several weather-related incidents. In southern Israel. A car with nine children was swept away by a flood in the Garar River area Thursday. They were evacuated with the driver and airlifted to Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva suffering light injuries from exposure. Ofakim’s water main exploded due to floods, leaving the southern town without tap water. A 45-year-old man was evacuated to Assaf Harofeh Hospital in Tzrifin in moderate condition with hypothermia, after he was found lying on a street in the city of Lod.
The cold snap was forecast to continue Friday. As of Thursday night, Friday’s forecast was rain and cold, with snow on the summits of the mountains in the north and centre, and possibly on the summits of the southern hills as well. The rain will continue Saturday, when snow is expected to continue falling in the mountains. It will still be colder than usual. On Sunday the weather will be partly cloudy with a slight rise in temperatures. There is still a possibility of light local rain, and a possibility of frost at night.
Dr Amos Porat of the Meteorological Service said, “At the moment we’re only in the initial stage of the present system.” Porat describes the anticipated system as one without a short beginning, middle and end: “It will enter gradually with cold air, rain and snow, with stronger and weaker waves. On Shabbat the system will decline gradually.”
The Meteorological Service reported that since the beginning of the storm two days ago and up to Thursday afternoon, the largest amounts of rain, 40-60 mm., were measured in the southern Coastal Plain, the central mountain areas and the Sharon. The north and the centre received 20-40 mm. and in the south there was almost no rain. In Kibbutz Negba, near Kiryat Malakhi, 55 mm. of rain fell in the past 24 hours, in Jerusalem 51 mm. and in Tel Aviv 41 mm.
The community of Harashim in the Galilee had 52 mm, Nahariya 41 mm. and Haifa only 14 mm.
- Eli Ashkenazi, Yaniv Kubovich, Jack Khoury, Yarden Skop, Shirly Seidler, Zohar Blumenkrantz and Nir Hasson contributed to this report.
Helen Mirren to play Golda Meir in upcoming film
(JTA) Academy Award winner Helen Mirren will portray Golda Meir, Israel’s only female prime minister, in an upcoming biopic set during the Yom Kippur War.
Production Golda will begin later this year, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
The news follows the announcement last month of another star-powered production on Meir, a series titled Lioness led by Israeli actress Shira Haas of Unorthodox fame.
While Lioness will follow Meir from “her birth in Kiev to her American upbringing in Milwaukee, her role in the formation of Israel, and her rise to become the new nation’s first and only female prime minister”, according to a report in Deadline, Golda will focus on the turbulent Yom Kippur War period.
Along with the rest of Israel, Meir and her all-male cabinet were taken by surprise by the attack on the eve of the holiday in 1973 by Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian forces. The ensuing bloody conflict – chronicled in the recent acclaimed Israeli production Valley of Tears on HBO Max – shattered the nation’s growing sense of confidence at the time in an embattled region.
Golda will be directed by Israeli filmmaker Guy Nattiv, who won the 2018 Academy Award for best short for Skin, a film involving neo-Nazis that he later made into a feature.
“As someone who was born during the Yom Kippur War, I’m honoured to tell this fascinating story about the first and only woman to ever lead Israel,” Nattiv said. “Nicholas Martin’s brilliant script dives into Golda’s final chapter as the country faces a deadly surprise attack during the holiest day of the year, a core of delusional generals undermining Golda’s judgement.
“I couldn’t be more excited to work with the legendary Miss Mirren to bring this epic, emotional, and complex story to life.”
Bibi or not Bibi – is there even a question?
“Citizens of Israel – thank you!” wrote Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Hebrew on Twitter shortly after Israeli polls closed on Tuesday night, 23 March.
A few hours later, a delighted crowd welcomed him at his Likud party headquarters in Jerusalem. “Bibi, Bibi!” they shouted, filling a large hall with balloons, banners, and Likud COVID-19 masks.
But the excitement might be misplaced and premature at best.
As the hours ticked into Wednesday morning, the exit polls started changing their initial predictions. Only on Friday afternoon will the final tally be known.
What won’t alter is the fact that the prime minister’s Likud party won the most parliament seats by a large margin. President Reuven Rivlin will therefore task him first with forming a government. But then it gets tricky.
At the time of writing (at midday on Wednesday) exit polls predicted Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc fell short of the 61 seats it needed to secure a majority coalition. The kingmaker could well be the prime minister’s former ally and defence minister, Naftali Bennett. His Yamina (Rightwards) party won at least seven seats, and although Bennett avoided explicitly declaring who he would support, it’s widely expected he’ll join Netanyahu. In return, he’ll exact a high price in terms of ministerial positions and other powerful appointments.
This would bring Netanyahu closer than ever to a narrow government that would include the most extreme elements of Israeli society. Exit polls showed the Religious Zionist Party, that includes far-right and homophobic elements with roots in the overtly racist Kahanist party, receiving enough votes to enter parliament.
Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute, warned that such a coalition could back Netanyahu’s attempts to find a political solution to his legal troubles. “In this case, it will be imperative that elected leaders from across the political spectrum, civil society organisations, and all those who advocate on behalf of a vibrant Israeli democracy, make it emphatically clear that the results of this election don’t constitute a license to promote radical proposals aimed at eroding the legal system and curtailing the rule of law. The health and vitality of Israel’s democratic system could hang in the balance,” he said.
Meanwhile opposition leader Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid (There Is a Future), said he, too, would try to build a coalition to “create a sane government for Israel”.
Speaking early on Wednesday morning, he declared, “At the moment, Netanyahu doesn’t have 61 seats but the change bloc does. We’ll wait for the final results but as it stands, there won’t be a government based on the votes of the racists and homophobes.”
The anti-Netanyahu bloc is far from a homogenous group, consisting of left, right, and centrist factions. They have fewer options in forming a coalition than Netanyahu. Should neither side succeed, it will be back to the polls for Israelis – the fifth election in two years.
Which in part explains why Tuesday’s turnout was the lowest since 2013. Voter fatigue and apathy are starting to sour even the most ardent supporters of Israeli democracy.
The lack of enthusiasm was most noticeable in the Arab community. Many residents confessed they had lost confidence in their representatives and the two main Arab blocs – the Joint List and the breakaway United Arab List (Ra’am), headed by Mansour Abbas – warned of a “disaster” due to the low turnout.
In the 2015 election, the Joint List became the third-largest party in parliament after it won 13 seats. In the 2020 election, it increased to 15, remaining the third-largest party until Yesh Atid split off from Blue and White to lead the opposition.
Earlier this year, Abbas quit the Joint List, indicating his willingness to join a coalition headed by Netanyahu. And the prime minister welcomed him. Whereas in the past Netanyahu “incited” against the Arabs, this time around, he changed his strategy and appealed to Arab-Israelis to vote for him.
He paid rare visits earlier this year to Arab cities in the north of the country purportedly to encourage citizens to get coronavirus vaccinations, but many were suspicious that he was taking advantage of the rift within the alliance of Arab parties.
Netanyahu appeals to some Arab voters because they believe he can make things happen. He’s also promised to focus on the growing violence and crime in the Arab community, economic issues, and the recent normalisation of Israel’s relations with several Arab countries.
As in the previous three rounds, this election was largely seen as a referendum on the tenure of Netanyahu. Personality politics has so overtaken the race that there has been almost no mention of the Palestinians after years of frozen peace talks.
The day before the vote, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh described the election as an “internal” matter for Israelis, but decried the effect on Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.
Netanyahu used these elections to once again portray himself as a global statesman uniquely qualified to lead Israel through its many security and diplomatic challenges.
But unlike the previous election held last March, he didn’t have the support of former American President Donald Trump smiling alongside him in campaign posters. Instead, Netanyahu made Israel’s coronavirus-vaccination campaign the centrepiece of his re-election bid, repeatedly stressing that he was personally responsible for Israel’s impressively fast rollout.
Only a few short months ago, it seemed that COVID-19 would kill his chances of winning another election, and his critics still accuse him of bungling the management of the pandemic for most of the past year. But most Israelis appreciate his efforts.
This was the first election held in the throes of the pandemic, and five thousand additional polling stations were set up to deal with the situation. Workers in hazmat suits collected ballots in hospital wards while buses were parked outside some polling stations to serve as remote ballot drops for coronavirus-positive or quarantined voters.
As things stand now, it’s unclear if four rounds of elections have resolved the longest political crisis in Israel’s history. The country remains as divided as it has been over the past two years.
Israelis assists Eswatini with vaccine rollout
The success of Israel’s COVID-19 vaccine programme may seem like a far-away reality, but it’s actually much closer to home – over the border in fact. An Israel-based non-governmental organisation is working feverishly to assist Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland) to build its COVID-19 response, including vaccine rollout, logistics, and public education.
The tiny landlocked nation has been hit hard by the pandemic, symbolised for many in the demise of Prime Minister Ambrose Dlamini four weeks after he contracted the virus. Now IsraAID, the largest humanitarian aid organisation in Israel, is helping it to pick up the pieces and turn its story around.
From earthquakes and hurricanes to epidemics and forced displacement, IsraAID has been at the forefront of responding to major humanitarian crises worldwide since 2001. It has worked in more than 50 countries and at any one time, has about 300 staff members worldwide.
A seven-member team from IsraAID landed in Eswatini on 8 March 2021 for a two-week visit. They were invited by the government, which has vaccines in the pipeline, and wants help with logistics and public education ahead of the rollout. The mission is being funded by South Africa-based Nathan “Natie” Kirsh, a citizen of Eswatini.
The global chief executive of the Kirsh Foundation, Carly Maisel, told the SA Jewish Report that Eswatini’s COVID-19 case load and death count probably exceeded reported numbers. “The country has the highest COVID-19 death rate in Africa, and the highest HIV prevalence in the world. With just more than one million people, nearly 60% of whom live under the national poverty line, it would be easy for Eswatini to be left behind in the global vaccination race.”
Speaking from Eswatini, Molly Bernstein, IsraAID’s development and communications manager, says, “We made it here on one of the first flights following Ben Gurion Airport’s reopening last Sunday. We arrived with experts who can give insight into the main aspects needed to implement a vaccination campaign of this kind: an operations expert; a psychosocial support expert; our medical sector lead and public health nurse; an epidemiologist and physician who specialises in vaccines; our head of global programmes; and a communications and public-outreach lead.
“Since the start of the pandemic, IsraAID has been working non-stop,” she says. “We have responded to COVID-19 in 17 countries worldwide. We aim to use the models we develop in Eswatini to inform further vaccination campaigns around the world, specifically in the global south, through a new Global Vaccine Access initiative. IsraAID has longstanding expertise in public health, emergency medical care, and mental health capacity building. We will utilise the know-how developed during Israel’s successful vaccination rollout to inform its planning in Eswatini, from here moving to other potential locations.
“This visit is an assessment mission to understand the capacity, assets, and needs on the ground, and identify how we can best support these aspects moving forward,” says Bernstein. “We’re working with the government to put together a plan.”
Because the country has been hit so hard, Bernstein says that a crucial component of its work will be to focus on mental health and resilience, particularly in regard to the country’s frontline health workers.
“In order to build an effective public health response, we have to think holistically and prioritise the needs of local communities. We are meeting many inspiring people here on the ground who want to work hard to help Eswatini push forward with vaccinations to decrease the day-to-day impact of the pandemic,” she says.
“The people of Eswatini, including community leaders, government officials, and everyone we’ve met, have been extremely warm and welcoming. They are excited about learning about the vaccination experience in Israel and working together as the rollout launches here in Eswatini.”
Maisel says that the Kirsh Foundation wanted to play a role because it believes that “successfully overcoming the pandemic will be possible only once there is equitable access and widespread adoption of vaccines across all nations”. The Kirsh family has responded to COVID-19 around the globe, particularly in Southern Africa, through food relief, unemployment support, medical equipment, and bridge-loan funding.
In addition, “Mr Kirsh’s roots are firmly in Eswatini, the place he calls home, and his legacy of philanthropy there is extensive,” Maisel says. “Eswatini is the country where he founded his entry into business and where he raised his family. It will forever be an integral part of his identity. Watching the country ravaged by COVID-19 has been heartbreaking for him and the Kirsh family.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Kirsh Foundation has responded to short-term needs such as PPE [personal protective equipment] and food relief [in Eswatini],” says Maisel. “Additionally, the foundation has been examining how it can support the country over the long term, such as by sponsoring local oxygen capabilities.
“Now, we have partnered with IsraAID to help the nation and frontline health workers prepare for vaccine distribution and a potential third wave of the virus. Mr Kirsh speaks to the IsraAID team via video calls, and he has told them that they will have a universal effect on the country.”
IsraAID Chief Executive Yotam Polizer told the SA Jewish Report, “It’s ground breaking because there are few initiatives to support the global south during COVID-19, specifically with vaccination campaigns. It’s also ground breaking because it’s the first time that an Israeli organisation is using the expertise developed in Israel as part of its vaccination campaign, and is bringing this know-how to some of the world’s most vulnerable communities.”
The Kirsh Foundation has been a longstanding supporter of IsraAID’s world-renowned global initiatives. “Bringing together the two countries central to Mr Kirsh’s philanthropic vision was a ‘no brainer’ in this case,” says Maisel.
“IsraAID has become synonymous with rapid response to humanitarian crises around the world. We know that it’s up to the daunting task of preparing for a national vaccine rollout, not just because of its proven ability to deliver on its mission, but because of the unique insights it will bring from the unparalleled success of Israel’s vaccination campaign.
“We hope IsraAID will be able to leverage its experience in Eswatini to roll out its global vaccine initiative throughout the rest of Africa, where many countries are in need of its logistical and medical insight,” she says.
Asked if the organisation would carry out a similar mission in South Africa, Polizer says, “Our goal at IsraAID is to support the most vulnerable, regardless of politics. We’ve worked in countries that didn’t even have diplomatic relations with Israel, and we would be happy to support communities affected in South Africa in the future. We believe that through long-term humanitarian work, we can build bridges between people and countries. We would also love to discuss opportunities to partner with individuals and institutions in the South African Jewish community in the future. COVID-19 won’t be over for us, here [in Israel], until it is over for everyone, everywhere.”
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