LOD, Israel (AFP) — As if political instability and rampant insecurity in the Middle East are not worrying enough, Israeli experts are warning that a major earthquake could strike the region at any time.
Three minor quakes over the past month have served as a reminder that Israel and the West Bank sit atop one of the most sensitive fault lines in the world, where earthquakes have a history of causing havoc.
"We can say with certainty that an earthquake of a magnitude of six on the Richter scale could take place in the coming years," said Yefim Gitterman from the seismology department at the geophysical institute of Lod, near Tel Aviv.
"It can happen tomorrow or in years to come," he said. "Statistically, there is a major quake every 80 years."
Under that assessment, Israel and the Palestinian territories should brace for a major earthquake soon, as the last one happened 80 years ago, on July 11, 1927, in British mandate Palestine when 300 people were killed in Jerusalem and Jericho.
A similar quake measuring seven on the Richter scale and with an epicentre in the Hula Valley, today in northern Israel up from the Sea of Galilee, devastated the town of Safed and killed some 4,000 people in 1837.
"Stronger earthquakes of a magnitude of seven are statistically less common," Gitterman said. But that could be bad enough.
The Lod institute estimates that if a magnitude seven earthquake strikes the northern Jordan Valley or the Dead Sea, between 8,200 and 9,500 people could be killed, more than 20,000 injured and more than 20,000 left homeless.
Running north to south, the Hula Valley, the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan Valley, the Dead Sea, the Arava Desert and the Red Sea lie on what is known as the Syrian-African fault line.
Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who saw Jerusalem fall to the invading Romans in 70 AD, also wrote that around 30,000 people perished in an earthquake whose epicentre was in the region of the Dead Sea in 31 BC.
The Lod institute, part of the infrastructure ministry, is on standby day and night to brief the Israeli authorities on the epicentre and magnitude of a powerful tremor within 10 minutes in order to mobilise an emergency response.
The Israeli home front command publishes extensive advice on how to behave in the event of an earthquake on its multi-language website, urging families to prepare emergency supplies to survive for 24 to 72 hours until help arrives.
All new homes built in Israel are equipped with bomb shelters, and the civil defence advises that those without should crouch inside a doorway or under a heavy table in the event of an earthquake, and avoid using lifts.
The website advises people to carry out drills at least twice a year to make a response in an actual event automatic.
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