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BEHIND THE HEADLINES Expert says Israel could face major quake in next 50 years

JERUSALEM, Aug. 24 (JTA) — The horrific damage caused by the Turkish earthquake has prodded the Israeli government into considering comprehensive plans to minimize damage if Israel, which sits on an active seismic zone, is ever hit by a large earthquake. Last Sunday, Prime Minister Ehud Barak told the Cabinet that Israel must learn from the Turkish disaster and buildings must be built according to the highest standards. Minister of Industry and Trade Ran Cohen appointed a committee Monday to examine to what extent industry and commerce are prepared to function in the event of 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. Avi Shapira, head of the seismology division at the Geophysical Institute of Israel, which monitors earthquake activity, told the committee that there is even a small chance of an earthquake hitting Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa simultaneously. He later told JTA that although the frequency of earthquakes in Israel is much lower than in earthquake-prone regions like California, Japan and Turkey, Israel is likely to get hit by a serious earthquake — above 6 on the Richter scale — within the next 50 years. “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, pointing out an earthquake in 1927 that caused casualties and serious damage in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Jericho and Nablus. An earthquake in 1837 hit northern Palestine, devastating the town of Safed and leaving thousands dead. “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.” 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 was about 60 miles south of Eilat in the Gulf of Aqaba and measured 7.1 on the Richter scale. Since it struck relatively far from the shores of the southern resort town, nobody was killed, although some structures were damaged. 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. Committee participants said the uncertainty over who is responsible for dealing with such a large-scale disaster scenario makes preparations particularly difficult.