Is Israel, atop faultlines, ready for major earthquake

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Avi Shapira, who heads Geophysical Institute of Israel's seismology division, said the frequency of earthquakes in Israel is much lower than in earthquake-prone regions such as California, Japan and Turkey.

Still, he added, Israel is likely to get hit by a serious earthquake — above 6 on the Richter scale — within the next 50 years. Other experts, to put that in perspective, have predicted the Bay Area faces a major quake within 30 years.

Shapira also said there is a small chance of an earthquake hitting Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa simultaneously.

"This is an earthquake-prone country, with respect to the fact that earthquakes have occurred here in the past and some were quite disastrous," he said this week.

A quake in 1927 caused casualties and serious damage in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Jericho and Nablus. Another in 1837 hit northern Palestine, devastating the town of Safed and leaving thousands dead.

Shapira said the impact of such an earthquake will depend on how far the epicenter is from populated areas.

The most recent significant earthquake in Israel, which sits on the Dead Sea rift, was on Nov. 22, 1995. The epicenter of the 7.1-magnitude quake was about 60 miles south of Eilat in the Gulf of Aqaba. Because it struck relatively far from the shores of the southern resort town, no one was killed — even though some structures were damaged.

"The Turkish earthquake was a wake-up call to Israel," Shapira said. "Everybody was watching television, and everybody was wondering how well prepared we are in case such a strong earthquake occurs in our region. Even an earthquake of this magnitude — above 7 on the Richter scale — could occur here."

Ran Cohen, industry and trade minister, followed up Monday on Barak's comments by appointing a committee to examine the ability of industry and commerce to function after an earthquake.

A special joint meeting of the Knesset State Comptrollers Committee and the Knesset Science Committee convened the same day to discuss how to get the country prepared for a potential earthquake.

"We cannot let this slip through the public agenda," said Eliezer Goldberg, Israel's state comptroller.

Ziva Patir, head of the Israel Standards Institute, told Israel Television that Israeli building standards are high and should be able to withstand earthquakes.

"But the problem is to what extent the standards are being enforced by municipal authorities,'' she said.