Putting Mideast conflict on ice


JERUSALEM - It was a day for snowballs, not stones, as if nature had imposed a curfew of its own on everyone.

A rare heavy snowstorm fell over central Israel and the northern West Bank yesterday, bringing much of the country to an abrupt standstill and quieting the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Up to a foot of snow fell on Jerusalem, blanketing the limestone buildings and streets. Some stuck to the tops of swaying palm trees. Schools, businesses, restaurants and stores closed; public buses stopped running; and the main highway leading to Tel Aviv was shut down.

Few people ventured out, and those who did toted cameras to capture the tranquil scenes of white snow covering treetops, church spires and mosque minarets on the Mount of Olives and along the ancient, slushy streets of the walled Old City.

The country has 80 snowplows, but the few deployed in Jerusalem ignored most streets. They seemed able to clear but a single lane from the busiest of roads in a normally car-crowded city that gets a significant snowfall only about once every seven years. Winter rain is the norm, not snow.

The snow in Jerusalem began early yesterday and continued into the night, turning into a blinding mix of sleet, snow, rain and hail. The Israel Meteorological Service said that by the time the storm ends later today, it could be Jerusalem's largest snowfall since 20 inches fell one day in 1950.

The city's last snow was a 2-inch dusting 13 months ago, and it washed away in less than an hour. A storm in 2000 dumped 11 inches. In 1998, two storms brought 4 and 6 inches, and in 1992, the city got 11 and 8 inches in separate snowfalls.

Yesterday was a day off from work for most and a break from the anxiety that governs the daily routine, a day in which winter weather warnings replaced terror warnings, and people searched for shovels instead of plastic sheeting to protect against a missile attack from Iraq. Even the army's gas mask distribution centers shut for the day.

"The situation is bad, and we want to be happy," said Yakov Uzan, 30, as he built a snowman on a medium strip in downtown Jerusalem. He used a borrowed restaurant tray to scoop up wet snow, which packed easily.

"It's like a holiday for us," he said as he shaped the smiling face and stuck a broom in the hands of his creation.

Up the road at the Old City's Damascus Gate, a group of Palestinian children and young men had a snowball fight. Using cars, empty pushcarts and telephone booths for cover, they darted between stone pillars as they pelted each other, forcing passers-by to shield themselves with umbrellas.

The plaza outside Damascus Gate can be a volatile place, where heavily armed and tense Israeli police stand guard over one of the main entrances to the Old City's Muslim Quarter and a jostling open market, site of several shootings in the past two years.

Several Palestinian boys wrapped their heads in checkered headdresses, resembling the young rock-throwing youths that often confront Israeli soldiers at checkpoints, and playfully traded snowballs with police, eliciting shouts of laughter rarely heard across the cultural chasm created by 29 months of conflict.

"We need this type of a break," said Sami Abu Sbeih, a 23-year-old restaurant worker who gleefully joined in the melee. "It's a nice change to be able to play."

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