Are Israel and Palestine prepared for the next catastrophic earthquake?

A major earthquake could leave 'hundreds of thousands' of casualties, one estimate says

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Israelis and Palestinians are preparing for a major earthquake on a scale not seen for a century, which is expected to wreak havoc and kill thousands.

Near the ruins of Beit Shean, an ancient city flattened by an earthquake, engineer Shemer Baruch contemplates what will happen when the ground shakes again.

“There are going to be flames here,” Mr Baruch said, in the modern-day city of the same name.

“I’m very concerned and I’m doing whatever I can now so I can make it better."

He has been given the task by the municipality to overhaul the city’s infrastructure.

Beit Shean sits on the Dead Sea Fault, where communities have been repeatedly devastated by earthquakes.

The ancient city was flattened in 749 AD, while the most recent major quake was in 1927.

The land affected now straddles Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan, whose officials have been working towards a joint response plan for nearly a decade.

A humanitarian affairs expert who is party to the talks said there were two main scenarios.

If a magnitude-6 earthquake hits, hundreds of buildings will collapse.

“[We] will have 1,000 fatalities, 10,000 casualties, 100,000 people displaced,” the expert told The National.

The worst-affected area will be the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem. Northern Israel, including Beat Shean, will also be hit, along with Jordanian border cities.

The consequences of an even bigger earthquake, measuring 7.5, would be disastrous.

“The services will be totally collapsed … within the West Bank, and casualties would be hundreds of thousands,” the expert said.

100-year earthquake cycle

Authorities are working against the clock to prepare for such an event, cautious of the 100-year cycle of major earthquakes in the area.

In Beit Shean, reinforced rooms have been added to some homes. About 20 residential blocks of about 300 have been strengthened.

About 4,000 people live in those homes, which Mr Baruch said were “built very, very fast” in the 1960s.

“These buildings are not designed for a major earthquake … these buildings won't last,” he said.

Some of the sand-coloured blocks have cracks creeping up their sides.

The municipality has an ambitious plan to strengthen more buildings and construct new neighbourhoods fit to withstand an earthquake.

The necessary funds are expected to come with future investment in Beit Shean, tied to a project linking the Israeli railway network to the nearby Jordanian border.

“I can’t swap the infrastructure and build a new one with money that I don’t have at the moment,” said Mr Baruch, estimating the city will be much better prepared in five to eight years.

If the quake hits now, the engineer said there was little he could do apart from “expanding the cemetery”.

This year Israel launched its earthquake siren, which gives residents a warning of a few seconds before the shockwaves hit.

The government has also run schemes to demolish and rebuild earthquake-proof residential buildings in some parts of the country.

Its national emergency portal warns: “a strong earthquake is expected in Israel that may result in mass disaster accompanied by thousands of dead and wounded.”

Palestinians in the West Bank will be worst hit because of their proximity to an earthquake’s epicentre and their limited coping capacity.

Jalal Dabbeek, director of the Centre for Urban Planning and Disaster Reduction in Nablus, a city in the northern West Bank, said part of the challenge is the Palestinians’ lack of autonomy.

'Where can you build?'

The West Bank was carved up into different zones under peace accords of the 1990s. The Palestinian Authority controls the cities, while another 60 per cent of the West Bank is fully controlled by Israel.

This has hampered the Palestinians’ ability to expand their cities as the population grows, or create new neighbourhoods.

“Where can you build? You need land to divide it for urban planning, infrastructure, roads,” Mr Dabbeek said.

“There is no land and, for this reason, they want to build 10 levels on the mountain area."

Within view of the academic centre at An Najah University, scores of high-rise apartment blocks are dotted across the mountains that surround Nablus.

Sketching his calculations on paper, Mr Dabbeek estimated about 5,000 apartments in Nablus would collapse in a major earthquake.

“Our civil defence can deal with two, three buildings [collapsing] in each city. But we are talking about thousands of buildings,” he said.

Palestinian refugee camps, such as those in Nablus and Bethlehem, are especially vulnerable because of the cramped conditions.

The rubble of just one building can block an entire narrow street, delaying or preventing rescuers from reaching any survivors.

One area of considerable concern is Kufr Aqab, a neighbourhood north of Jerusalem that on paper is under Israeli rule. But it lies behind the concrete wall built by Israel around the West Bank.

“All the Palestinian institutions, they haven’t the possibility or the power to control the area,” Mr Dabbeek said.

Dozens of high-rise apartment blocks have been built without enforcement of construction regulations by Palestinian or Israeli officials.

“The situation there will be very, very, very difficult,” when an earthquake hits, Mr Dabbeek said.

Jerusalem municipality, run by Israeli officials, told The National that Kufr Aqab has been included in its earthquake response plan.

Kufr Aqab stands beside an abandoned airport, a reminder that the Palestinians control no airspace.

Part of the trilateral talks are dedicated to managing how international rescuers will be able to cross borders controlled by Jordan and Israel.

Issues include how Israel will handle crews arriving at Tel Aviv’s airport, the humanitarian response expert said.

“Custom services; how they will deal with the items. If they will be giving visas for international teams,” are both under discussion, he said.

After meetings in Cyprus, Israel, Jordan and the West Bank, the three parties are due to hold practice exercises this year and in 2023.

If the earthquake hits before then, they will have to rely on their national disaster plans and the current lines of communications.

“We will try to adapt and work together,” said the humanitarian specialist.

“[An] earthquake is not a normal crisis. Even with preparation, it will be heavy.”

Updated: June 13, 2022, 3:48 AM