Winter storm causes at least four deaths, evacuations from snow, rain in Middle East

Hamas authorities go through U.N. to ask for Israeli help

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JERUSALEM — Hundreds of Gaza Strip families were forced to evacuate their homes in boats and rafts as heavy flooding rose to second-story levels during the heaviest winter storm to hit the region in decades.

At least four people were reported dead as the torrential rain and snow began to subside Saturday after hammering Israel, the Palestinian territories and other nations for three days.

In a rare appeal, Hamas authorities in Gaza requested assistance from Israel, via the United Nations. Israel opened the Kerem Shalom crossing to Gaza to allow gas for heating and other humanitarian aid into the Strip, as well as pumps to clear flooded areas.

According to Israeli military officials, an Israeli-Palestinian command center was also set up to coordinate power, traffic control and other systems affected by the weather in the West Bank.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu kept abreast of intensive efforts to bring emergency relief to thousands of Israelis cut off from power in subzero temperatures.

Police, fire department and medical teams worked together to help deliver babies, transport elderly to shelters and extricate people from cars and flooded structures.

Israel's military dispatched dozens of bulldozers and heavy-duty vehicles to help clear the roads in and around Jerusalem, snowed in and cut off since Thursday, including 30 armored personnel carriers. By Saturday night, the main road to Jerusalem was partially opened. Some locations in northern Israel remained cut off.

Special authorization was issued for trains to run on the Sabbath to take home hundreds stranded in Jerusalem during the storm. Schools will remain closed in Jerusalem, Safed, Galilee and the Golan Heights, as well as several southern locations.

Among the storm's victims were a 6-week-old baby who died in a fire caused by a malfunctioning heating device in Lod and two men who drowned in a flooded river.