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Dust, rain and high winds afflicted large parts of the country yesterday, particularly in the north and center, leading to health warnings and interruptions in domestic air traffic.

The rain is expected to diminish today, and tomorrow will usher in several days of dry weather and unseasonably high temperatures.

According to Nahum Malik of the Meteo-Tech weather service, a winter weather system originating in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea brought rain that began falling in the north yesterday morning; it spread to the center of the country and, by evening, to the northern Negev. Malik added that the heavy haze reduced visibility to two kilometers.

"This condition occurs in the winter when there are rain systems coming from the direction of the Mediterranean. They are accompanied by southern winds that actually bring in sand from deserts around Egypt and Libya, and come to Israel," Malik explained.

The Environmental Protection Ministry issued a precautionary alert concerning the health implications of high concentrations of dust in the air, which can irritate and damage the respiratory system; children, the elderly and the chronically ill were at the highest risk.

The ministry measured dust concentrations in certain cities that exceeded permitted amounts by from four to 10 times. Air quality improved over the course of the day, as the rain settled the dust.

Haifa Airport was shut down yesterday morning due to poor visibility; seven flights were canceled, and passengers were bused to central Israel. Travel was also affected at Tel Aviv's Sde Dov Airport, where planes lacking appropriate instrumentation were temporarily idled. No weather-related interruptions or schedule changes were reported at Ben-Gurion International Airport.

The north benefited the most from yesterday's precipitation, with 45 millimeters falling in the Golan Heights, 35 millimeters in Safed and 25 in Haifa. By early evening Tel Aviv and Jerusalem had received just 13 and 11 millimeters of rain, respectively, while Ashkelon had just 3.

Malik said that while winter weather systems like yesterday's usually bring snow in February, it simply was not cold enough for that to happen. The wind compensated for the absence of cold, with speeds of 50 kilometers per hour registered; in Haifa, gusts of up to 100 kilometers per hour were measured.

The wintry weather will subside today; Tuesday through Thursday it will be drier and 3 to 5 degrees Celsius warmer. The rain could return toward the weekend.

Despite the potential for more rain, February is almost certain to remain well below the multiple-year average for the month, offering no relief to Israel's strained water reservoirs. In the past several years February was the rainiest month of the year, making the greatest contribution to easing the country's rainfall deficit.