A snowstorm of rare intensity has blanketed Jerusalem and parts of the occupied West Bank, choking off the city and stranding hundreds of vehicles on impassable roads.

Israeli authorities on Friday said at least 50 centimetres of snow had fallen since the previous day, and forecasters predicted the storm would continue.

"In my 54 years I don't remember a sight like this. Such an amount I cannot recall," Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said.

We always say 'Jerusalem of gold'; this is 'Jerusalem of snow'. We have that too.

Benjamin Netanyahu,
Israeli PM

The fierce storm overburdened Jerusalem's emergency services, and the Israeli military stepped in to help police rescue hundreds of people stranded in vehicles on highways near the city. More than 500 people were housed in a makeshift shelter at a city convention hall.

All highways leading into Jerusalem were shut until further notice as the continued snowfall and freezing temperatures impeded ploughs, Israel Radio reported.

The broadcaster also said that falling tree branches had toppled electricity wires, leaving thousands without power.

'It's amazing'

While locals were instructed to remain in their homes, US Secretary of State John Kerry, who was in the city to attempt to revive lagging Middle East peace talks, joked about receiving a snowy "New England" welcome.

"Good to see you in a snowy Jerusalem," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded. "We always say 'Jerusalem of gold'; this is 'Jerusalem of snow'. We have that too."

Several schools were closed in Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank, and in one ultra-orthodox neighbourhood, residents were pleased to welcome the snowy onslaught.

"The weather? It's wonderful out here... There's no school. We can make snowmen. We can have some fun. We can rest," Jerusalem resident Martin Leftwoods said. "It's amazing out here."

Stormy weather has also hit Jordan, Lebanon and Syria in recent days, and in the Gaza Strip, icy rain and floods forced dozens of Palestinian families from their homes. The heavy rains in Gaza on Thursday flooded streets and caused some houses to collapse, prompting residents to call for international assistance. 

Source: Agencies