Palestinians fear potential devastation of future earthquake

A lack of preparedness in the earthquake-prone region could lead to the deaths of thousands, experts say

Palestinians fear an earthquake closer to their territory could have devastating consequences. AP
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The devastating events in Turkey and Syria have reignited Palestinian concerns that they are at risk in the event of another earthquake in the Middle East.

Palestinian engineers, academics and politicians are highlighting a lack of preparedness that could lead to thousands of deaths in the earthquake-prone region.

The region has consistently seen major earthquakes every 100 years. The 1927 Jericho Earthquake killed at least 500 people and heavily damaged cities including Jericho, Jerusalem and Nablus.

Jalal Al Dabbeek, Director of the Centre for Urban Planning and Disaster Reduction at An-Najah University, believes that a worst-case scenario today could cause ten times that number of casualties.

“An emergency response from Palestine to an earthquake in our region would be very complicated. The main reason: [neighbouring] Jordan and Israel would be too busy with their own fallout to help. Jordan has an army, infrastructure and an airport. So does Israel. Palestine has none of these,” Mr Dabbeek said.

“At the core of the issue is the seismic vulnerability of buildings. The exposure and density of Palestinian cities and refugee camps is very high. This could spell disaster.”

On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered his national Security Council to assess Israel’s preparedness for an earthquake.

The decision came after the earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria which killed more than 17,000 people, with the numbers expected to rise.

It would take more than a decade for the country to prepare adequately, an anonymous top Israeli official was quoted in The Jerusalem Post.

Nazareth resident and Palestinian citizen of Israel Suheil Diab expressed concern about what that means for Palestinians, both inside and outside Israel.

“If Israelis aren’t prepared, the situation is even worse for Palestinian residents of Israel. Let alone Palestinians in the Occupied Territories,” he said.

Basem Hazzan, a specialist earthquake engineer, believes that the continuing Israeli control over planning permission for Palestinians is putting lives at risk. “Palestinians living in old buildings are having to build unsafely on top of existing structures because there is no land on which they can build. The occupation prevents it,” Hazzan said.

Israel retains planning control in the majority of the West Bank, despite plans to transfer such powers gradually to the Palestinian Authority as part of the 1993-95 Oslo Accords.

Monday's earthquake is also stoking fears about the safety of cultural heritage sites. On Tuesday, the UN’s cultural agency Unesco said it was providing assistance after two sites on its World Heritage list were damaged, Syria’s old city of Aleppo and Turkey’s Diyarbakir Fortress.

Palestinian politician and activist Hanan Ashrawi said the chance of similar damage to Palestinian sites would “strike at the heart of our identity”.

Israel's 'Olive Branches' humanitarian aid delegation to Turkey. IDF handout via Reuters

In recent years there have been concerns that Israeli archaeological excavations are endangering the Al Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. “Should there be any tremor there, the whole area might collapse,” Ms Ashrawi told The National.

For now, however, she believes the primary tragedy in Turkey and Syria for Palestinians is the human one.

“Every Palestinian I talk to has empathy about the depth of suffering that Turkey and Syria are currently going through. I felt a genuine identification with the suffering, and a sense of helplessness. Some medical teams are being sent from Palestine, but they are minuscule compared to the need on the ground.”

On Tuesday night, the US Geological Survey recorded a 4.1-magnitude earthquake near the Palestinian city of Nablus.

Updated: February 09, 2023, 3:32 PM