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Thousands evacuated from flooded Gaza homes

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Rescue workers evacuated more than 4,000 Gaza Strip residents from homes flooded by four days of heavy rain, using fishing boats and heavy construction equipment to pluck some of those trapped from upper floors, an official said Saturday.

The ongoing downpour is part of a storm that has 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 snowfall, the first in years.

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, more than 4,000 people were evacuated 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.

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.

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