GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Flooding from heavy rains has forced 40,000 Gaza Strip residents from their homes, including more than 5,000 who were evacuated by rescue workers using boats and heavy construction equipment, officials said Saturday.
The downpour began late Wednesday and was part of a storm that covered Jerusalem and some of the West Bank with a thick blanket of snow. Even parts of Gaza, a coastal territory with a milder climate, saw some snow, the first in years.
In Israel, 28,000 homes remained without power Saturday, including thousands in Jerusalem.
In the low-lying areas of Gaza, water has been rising since heavy rains began late Wednesday, flooding streets and homes.
One of the hardest hit areas was Nafak Street in Gaza City's Sheik Radwan neighborhood, close to a rainwater reservoir.
Said Halawa, an area resident, said the reservoir overflowed Wednesday evening. By Thursday, water had poured into the ground floor of his two-story home where he and he and 41 other members of his extended family live, Halawa said.
The family called for help and was evacuated by boat from the upper floor. Halawa said he and his family were taken to a makeshift shelter in a neighborhood school. "We got some assistance, some blankets and some food, but I didn't save any of my belongings," said the 52-year-old taxi driver.
Elsewhere on Nafak Street, local TV showed a rescuer standing on the shoulders of another man in a boat as they tried to reach people in a third-floor apartment.
In all, about 5,250 people were rescued from flooded homes, said Mohammed al-Madaina of Gaza's Civil Defense Department.
Another hard-hit area was the refugee camp of Jebaliya in northern Gaza.
"Large swathes of northern Gaza are a disaster area with water as far as the eye can see," Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the main U.N. aid agency for Gaza refugees, wrote in an email to reporters.
The U.N. agency evacuated hundreds of families to U.N. facilities and distributed 5,000 liters of fuel to local pumping stations, he said.
Housing Minister Yousef Jhariz, who headed the government's crisis team, said that in all, the flooding forced about 40,000 people out of their homes, including those who were evacuated by rescue teams and those who left on their own.
He said the storm caused at least $64 million in damages.
The storm hit Gaza at a time when it is buckling under widespread fuel shortages and rolling power cuts as a result of a tightened border closure by neighboring Egypt.
Both Israel and Egypt have restricted access to Gaza since the Islamic militant group Hamas seized the territory in 2007. Over the summer, Egypt's military intensified the blockade after ousting Egypt's Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, a Hamas ally.
Gunness wrote that once the storm is over, "the world community needs to bring effective pressure to end the blockade of Gaza."
Gaza residents "must be freed from these man-made constraints to deal with the impact of a natural calamity such as this," he added.
Israel sent emergency aid to Gaza at the request of the United Nations, said Maj. Guy Inbar, a military official. This included four water pumps and diesel fuel for heating, he said, adding that Israel was ready to meet additional requests if made.
Jerusalem, meanwhile, was crippled by snow for a third day Saturday.
Highways leading in and out of the city were shut, and residents were advised to stay off the roads. "We are in an exceptional event that Jerusalem has never seen," said Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon.
Sietvanit Tzirnishki was in a crowded train headed from Jerusalem to snow-free Tel Aviv, Israel's coastal metropolis.
"I've been stuck here in Jerusalem for two days at my sister's apartment that did not have electricity," she said. "We have been going from one apartment to the other to get some heat and some food and I'm glad to get back to Tel Aviv now."
Associated Press writer Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed reporting.