Palestine Pulse

Is Palestine prepared for a major earthquake?

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Article Summary
A string of minor earthquakes has drawn attention to the fact that in the event of a strong seismic activity in the West Bank, Palestinian lives are at risk and the infrastructure could be severely damaged.

RAMALLAH, West Bank — A magnitude 4.6 earthquake hit the northern part of the Sea of Galilee on July 27, one of the strongest in a series of earthquakes in the northern West Bank in July.

Palestinian officials fear that an earthquake with magnitude 6.5 or higher may cause extensive damage to buildings and even result in casualties given the lack of resources to confront such an incident.

On July 19, Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah met with members of the Supreme Council for Palestinian Civil Defense to discuss earthquake preparedness, and emergency field councils were formed in the West Bank.

In a conversation with Al-Monitor, Jalal Dabbeek, director of the Earth Sciences and Seismic Engineering Center at An-Najah University, reviewed the different scenarios of future earthquakes, the damage they may cause and the means to mitigate losses and mechanisms of an emergency response program.

“Palestinians will be the most affected in any future earthquakes due to the lack of emergency response capabilities. Buildings in [the Palestinian territories] are not earthquake resistant, and [Israeli] occupation forces control the borders and crossings and would hamper the response process. Palestinians are thus subject to major damages and losses,” Dabbeek said.

He noted that the most important factor determining the extent of the losses are the construction techniques used in the Palestinian territories. “Since Palestinian refugee camps are overcrowded with people living in primitively constructed buildings, the damage would be devastating in the event of an earthquake,” he said.

Dabbeek pointed out that the danger is not the earthquake itself — no matter how powerful it is — but rather the way buildings are constructed in Palestine. He said that the Engineers Syndicate has drawn up a new construction plan in cooperation with the Ministry of Local Government, several other ministries and the Civil Defense to develop earthquake-resistant buildings and infrastructure.

In addition, he noted that in the event of an earthquake the country could not easily receive foreign aid and relief teams from abroad, without an airport or land crossings they control. Meanwhile, Israel and Jordan would be preoccupied, as neighboring countries, in responding to their own needs. And there is no Palestinian national army that could assist in relief efforts with helicopters or sophisticated communication systems.

According to Dabbeek, preparations are underway in case a strong earthquake hits the country, such as the development of a disaster risk management system by the Palestinian government and its various ministries and agencies. He said that the goal is to create communication channels between the various ministries, institutions and agencies in the governorates on the one hand, and the central institutions and ministries in Ramallah on the other, and to involve the community and all institutions in the response process.

“Palestine is located in the Jordan Rift Valley, which is part of the Great Syria-African Rift, bordered to the east by the Arabian Plate and to the west by the African Plate. So there are a number of earth rifts that make it seismic — the most important of which is the Dead Sea Rift, where quakes occur every 80 to 100 years — the last one in 1927. There is also the rift between the Jordan Valley and Mount Carmel, where earthquakes hit every 200 to 250 years — the last one in 1759 — in addition to the most dangerous rift located north of the Sea of Galilee, with quakes occurring every 500 to 800 years,” Dabbeek explained.

“The time has come that those rifts may witness quakes,” he noted, adding that should an earthquake hit the northern part of the Sea of Galilee, its force would be enormous. 

Dabbeek pointed out that future earthquakes on these rifts could have great strength and little depth, so their impact would be extensive in the densely populated areas where buildings and infrastructure are weak.

“If an earthquake hits the northern part of the Sea of Galilee, its first impact would extend to the outskirts of the city of Jenin causing large material and human losses. Then the city of Nablus would be affected, followed by the center of the West Bank,” he said.

Dabbeek continued, “An earthquake on the Dead Sea Rift would mainly affect the southern regions, especially the Hebron and Bethlehem districts and parts of the Gaza Strip. An earthquake on the rift between the Jordan Valley and Mount Carmel would affect the Jordan Valley and the Galilee as well as Nablus and the outskirts of Ramallah.”

The situation does not seem to be much different in Israel. On July 5, Israeli geologist Ariel Haemin warned of a high probability of a devastating earthquake that would kill hundreds. Israeli State Comptroller Yosef Shapira said in a July 18 report that Israeli facilities, such as energy, water, transportation and health-care establishments, are not prepared for the possibility of a devastating earthquake.

The Palestinian Civil Defense classifies earthquakes at the top of its risk scale, according to the spokesman for the Palestinian Civil Defense, Nael al-Azza. He told Al-Monitor that the strategy set by the Supreme Council for Civil Defense is based on communicating with the local public, raising awareness about earthquakes and establishing emergency preparedness committees in cities and villages.

“Neighborhood committees are the most important element in the response and rescue process as they would be able to provide assistance before the arrival of specialized teams,” Azza said.

He noted that the plan also includes raising the efficiency and capabilities of the Civil Defense, communicating with international relief teams and forming local emergency councils in different governorates.

Azza stressed that the West Bank governorates have put in place a system that includes information on basic services, such as electricity repair, the number of heavy vehicles, ambulances, hospitals and emergency rooms in each governorate, and a plan of action to be implemented at the local level.

Ahmad Melhem is a Palestinian journalist and photographer based in Ramallah for Al-Watan News. He writes for a number of Arabic outlets.

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