The two earthquakes that rattled Israel in less than 24 hours should be a wake-up call for the government and security bodies to properly prepare for an expected big one.
A 3.7-magnitude earthquake struck at 11:36 p.m. on Saturday night, with its epicenter around 19 km. northeast of Beit She’an, the Geological Survey of Israel reported. Around noon on Sunday, a 3.5-magnitude quake hit close to Tiberias.
Though relatively small, citizens were evacuated from buildings in Beit She’an, Afula and other cities close to the epicenter.
While earthquakes in the region tend to be minor, experts have warned that Israel should expect a major quake measuring over 6 on the Richter scale to hit at any moment.
The country is situated along the Syrian-African fault line, which runs along the border between Israel and Jordan, part of the Great Rift Valley, encompassing the area from northern Syria to Mozambique.
The last major earthquake to strike Israel was in 1927 near Jericho. Measuring 6.2 on the Richter scale, it killed almost 500 people and injured an additional 700. Another large earthquake, on January 1, 1837, measured a magnitude 6.5 on the Richter scale and struck in the Galilee near Safed. It killed an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 people due to a subsequent landslide.
The government has been funding earthquake preparedness projects, and Home Front Command has released an application for earthquake preparedness and has trained more than 74,000 students to act as first earthquake responders and provide aid until professional rescue workers arrive.
In 2005, Israel passed the ambitious national TAMA 38 plan, which promised large-scale reinforcements of older buildings across the country.
The plan aimed to reinforce more than 150,000 residential buildings, but in the 16 years since, only a few thousand buildings have been reinforced. Most of them are in central Israel, not in cities on the periphery such as Beit She’an, Tiberias or Afula, which are closer to the Great Rift Valley and are likely to suffer the greatest amount of destruction from a large earthquake.
Thousands of Israelis along the rift are living in buildings that will likely collapse or be significantly damaged when the large earthquake strikes.
Israel is theoretically ready regarding where an earthquake might strike and where it might be stronger or weaker, but it is not practically prepared should one hit, Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Zeev Zuk-Ram (Vova), former head of the National Emergency Authority (RAHEL), told The Jerusalem Post in a recent interview.
“We have a good amount of knowledge, [but] we can’t say that we are prepared operationally... Preparedness is not just about strengthening buildings and hospitals, but the population has to be ready for when it happens,” he said.
Home Front Command has held several drills and is considered one of the leading bodies in search-and-rescue missions and can be sent to disaster scenes, but it will not be able to handle the crisis the country will find itself in after the quakes subside.
The government had allocated NIS 5 billion to strengthen buildings for earthquakes, but only NIS 7 million was actually transferred, the Construction and Housing Ministry reported in August 2020.
The authorities and the infrastructure are not prepared to deal with such an event, and immediate action was required, Defense Minister Benny Gantz warned last year.
“The window of opportunity” to prepare for such a large earthquake is closing, he said at a RAHEL conference.
“We need RAHEL to gather all the different elements,” he added. “In the past few decades our preparedness for earthquakes has improved, but in Israel today there still are some 80,000 housing units in severe danger of collapsing in case of an earthquake.”
Gantz likened the situation to Israel’s lack of readiness ahead of and during the current coronavirus pandemic. However, he said, unlike with COVID-19, where authorities had time to learn about the virus and respond to it, “in an event such as an earthquake, there is no time… Hence, the preparation should start now.”