A gathering of international experts spent three days this week pondering how to protect some of Israel's most important and unique heritage sites from being destroyed by natural disasters -- and vandals.
The Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel National Commission for UNESCO (the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization) convened the workshop in Akko, the second in a series that began a year ago in Greece. Among those attending were experts from China, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Peru and Tanzania, all of whom are recognized authorities in coping with risks and natural disasters.
"Israel is a center and important junction in the history of the world," observed the chairman of the Israel World Heritage Committee and UNESCO representative, Professor Mike Turner. "It is our duty to preserve these sites for us, and the generations after us."
"Israel is located in a region that is highly susceptible to earthquakes because of its proximity to the [Syria-Africa] Rift Valley -- a region of active faults where strong earthquakes have already struck that have left destroyed cities in their wake in Israel and neighboring lands," explained Ra'anan Kislev, director of the IAA's Conservation Department.
The last great earthquake struck Israel in 1927, he said, and another one could cause irreversible damage to cultural heritage, especially at sites which are situated just a few kilometers from the Rift. The Old City of Jerusalem, Masada and Bet She'an are among the sites most at risk, he added.
Dr. Avi Shapiro, chairman of the Inter-ministry Steering Committee for Earthquake Preparedness, concurred. "The last time a powerful earthquake occurred in the region of Bet She'an was in 746 CE. This means that a tremendous amount of energy has accumulated in the region and is waiting to be released," he said, adding that such an event could occur "in the near future, in geological terms." Such an earthquake could affect a radius of 70 kilometers, he noted, with tremors reaching as far as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Recent vandalism by angry Bedouin Arabs at the Nabatean city of Avdat, in the Negev, Kislev noted, "demonstrates the need to protect heritage sites from intentional damage by establishing suitable guard and security systems" as well. The vandals knocked over ancient columns and destroyed priceless artifacts, causing NIS 10 million (approximately $2.25 million) worth of damage. Four Bedouin Arabs were arrested in connection with the destruction, which police suspected was motivated by the desire to take revenge for the recent demolition of the family's house, which had been built illegally on government land.
"The test of the organizations responsible in the State of Israel for saving the sites that are among the most important to mankind will be in preliminary interministerial coordination and preparedness -- and not in an investigation the day after," said IAA director Shuka Dorfman.