On Tuesday, the week before last, Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik resorted to an unusual parliamentary measure. She heard a short speech by Balad whip Jalad Zahalka on the earthquake in Israel that week and decided on the spot to turn his speech into a motion for the agenda. Zahalka had noted that every 80 to 90 years Israel experiences a major earthquake, the kind that destroys entire cities.
The last such quake was in 1927, in other words 80 years ago. More than 300 were killed and over 1,000 homes were leveled. Many scientists argue that the question is not whether a big temblor will occur, but rather when and where.
In the past 80 years the country has filled with people and buildings. According to a state-compiled scenario presented to the Knesset in 2005, "If an earthquake measuring 7.5 on the Richter scale were to occur in Beit She'an, there would be 16,000 dead, about 90,000 injured, about 400,000 refugees, 130,000 buildings would collapse or be damaged." The emergency services would be able to reach only one of every 500 sites that were damaged. One of the most vulnerable points are the country's schools, which could collapse on top of thousands of students and teachers.
There have been four earthquakes in Israel in the past two weeks, including the one yesterday, clearly demonstrating the need for the discussion initiated by Itzik. But the session was held last Wednesday, in the shadow of the Annapolis summit. National Infrastructures Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer did not attend the meeting, sending Minister without Portfolio Meshulam Nahari (Shas) in his stead. Nahari confirmed that "according to the experts, a strong earthquake, at least as forceful as the 1927 quake, is expected to occur in Israel."
According to Nahari, "The cabinet is taking various steps both to minimize damage and prevent building collapse as well as to ready the forces. The minister of national infrastructures submitted to the cabinet a program for reinforcing public buildings, in particular schools and hospitals." Unfortunately, no agreement has been reached with the finance minister on the matter. "The request is for about NIS 5 billion for 20 years," Nahari said.
Well, now we all feel reassured. In the meeting of the State Control Committee in early 2005, the then head of the National Steering Committee for Earthquake Readiness, Dr. Efraim Laor, said nothing had been done, to the best of his knowledge, to prepare for a major earthquake. Since then, the state has taken a vigorous step - it ended its relationship with Laor. The director general of the Health Ministry, Avi Israeli, explained at the same meeting that not only buildings would be destroyed in the quake. "The cellular phone network won't operate, and since there won't be any roads, people won't be able to get to the hospitals, assuming there are hospitals to get to. In other words, we are talking about total chaos."
The Knesset will apparently establish an earthquake preparedness committee. Here are a few questions that the committee ought to ask: How protected are the hospitals in Safed, Tiberias and Eilat from earthquakes? How many alternative access routes does each one have? How much reinforcement do the hazardous materials installations in the Haifa Bay (and their pipelines) have? And what about the nuclear reactor in Dimona?
Do the helicopter squadrons of the Israel Defense Forces have emergency plans in the event that helicopters are to serve as the main means of transport to the disaster areas? Is the IDF prepared for protecting the northern border in the event that transportation from the center of the country is cut off? How is aid to be rushed to the Palestinian cities that are affected? Is the Knesset earthquake-proof?
MKs and cabinet members should keep in mind that the issue of non-reinforced homes is always taken care of eventually. Either they are reinforced, or the earthquake takes care of them. The likelihood that MKs will truly bring about national preparedness is quite slim, since this is a state that does not believe in preparedness. Therefore, there is a great fear that we are talking about a predictable screwup. On the other hand, if the MKs manage to allocate even tiny amounts to the matter and to bring about a degree of preparedness, it could save thousands of lives.
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