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The Earth Moves

July 10, 2018

by: Nathan Williams, Deputy International Administration Director

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Israel has in centuries past experienced some severe earthquakes. Testimony of this is found not only in archaeological and geological records, but also in the ancient biblical text. Scripture teaches that several significant past events were accompanied by great shakings in the natural world and it is foretold that future events will be also. While earthquakes are used symbolically in the Bible to illustrate God’s power, they also occurred literally. Today we understand that in a very physical way, Israel has a concerning predisposition to earthquakes.

Fault Lines

The lowest place on earth, the Dead Sea, lies right in the center of an extended depression known as the Jordan Rift Valley. As well as being the course of the Jordan River, this valley forms the eastern border of the modern nation of Israel with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The creation of this depression is the result of tectonic plates, namely the Arabian and African plates, sliding past each other. Israel straddles both plates, with the Golan Heights situated on the Arabian plate, while the Galilee, Judea, Samaria, the Coastal Plains and the Negev lie on the African plate. The boundary between these two tectonic plates is called the Dead Sea Transform fault system and is responsible for the relatively high seismic activity in the region.

The Jordan Rift Valley also forms part of the greatest continuous geographic trench, known as the Great Rift Valley. This runs over 6,000 kilometers (3,000 mi.) from the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon along the eastern border of Israel, through the Red Sea and then along the east side of the African continent until it reaches Mozambique in southern Africa. Geologists have long warned that the African tectonic plate is in the process of splitting into two separate plates along this East African Rift Valley. This seismic process has repercussions along the entire rift that also affect the northern-most tip, which lies in the nation of Israel.

Ninety-one Years and Counting

According to the Geophysical Institute of Israel, a major earthquake—measuring six and above on the Richter scale—occurs in Israel every 80–100 years on average. The last major earthquake was on July 11, 1927 and measured 6.3 on the Richter scale. The tremor struck at a depth of 15 kilometers (9.3 mi.), with the epicenter just north of the Dead Sea, near the ancient biblical city of Jericho. The cities of Jerusalem, Jericho, Tiberias and Shechem (Nablus) were badly damaged by the earthquake. A total of 287 deaths were reported throughout the country. The death toll in Jerusalem was 130, with an additional 450 people seriously injured. Over 300 buildings collapsed in Jerusalem alone, with the domes of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Al-Aqsa Mosque suffering damage. It has been 91 years since this last serious earthquake, so if the calculations of the Geophysical Institute of Israel are to be believed, the country is due for another big one in the coming years.

According to a report by the Knesset (Parliament) Foreign Affairs Committee and the Home Front Command of the Defense Ministry, the consequences of Israel being hit by a 7.5 magnitude earthquake would be devastating. It is estimated that some 30,000 buildings would collapse, over 7,500 people would be killed with another 8,600 injured. It is further estimated that this worst-case scenario would leave a quarter of a million Israelis homeless. Critical infrastructure, such as electricity, water and communication will not be left unscathed and repairs are likely to cost the government billions of shekels.

The reality is that many of the buildings in the ancient cities of Israel were not built to be resistant to earthquakes. Since the 1980s, legislation has been in place to make sure that new buildings are built with earthquake resistance in mind. Buildings built before 1980 would be renovated and reinforced, particularly those along the Jordan Rift Valley. This program is called the National Outline Plan 38 (Tama 38 in Hebrew). It involves homeowners striking an agreement with building contractors, where contractors reinforce and possibly upgrade buildings and in exchange are given building rights to apartments that they can sell to recoup costs. Critics of this initiative have come out against Tama 38, saying that it has done little to improve the most at-risk communities.

Preparation is Key

The Israeli Defense Ministry believes a major tremor is inevitable. On a yearly basis in the summertime, defense forces and emergency services hold drills and exercises for four days in order to improve response efforts in the event of a major earthquake. In a disaster scenario, communication and cooperation between various response units is vital, while time is of the essence. The quicker the first responders can be activated, the greater the chances of finding survivors. Municipalities of at-risk communities are also using education as a tool for preparing for the possibility of an earthquake. Home preparedness information on municipal websites provides insights on how to think about dangerous objects within a home that may cause injury or damage during an earthquake. Other basic exercises, like preparing a safe place or meeting point with family and having some emergency supplies in the home are another way that citizens can prepare.

Despite the government’s emphasis on preparation, the prevailing assumption is that most Israelis are unconcerned about the possibility of an earthquake. Almost no one alive today would have experienced one in Israel in their lifetime. While this may be true, one statement sticking in my mind is the slogan from the Haifa Municipality earthquake preparedness website: “A powerful earthquake in Israel is just a matter of time!”

Photo Credit: MDGRPHCS/Anton Balazh/shutterstock.com

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