JERUSALEM – A moderate earthquake rattled a swath of the Middle East early Wednesday, sending jitters throughout the region and causing minor damage to Israel's (search) parliament. No injuries were immediately reported.
Israeli media said the quake was a magnitude 5, enough to cause serious damage in a populated area.
At the Knesset, Israel's parliament, investigators found cracks in the ceilings near Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office and in the main auditorium.
Lawmakers sitting in committee meetings feared a large bomb had gone off, Israel Army radio reported, and a parliamentary debate was canceled.
High-rise buildings in Tel Aviv, shopping malls and schools throughout the country were evacuated. Israel's Channel Ten TV reported minor damage to four apartments in Jerusalem.
In the West Bank, the quake caused items to fall off shelves in stores in Jericho. Schoolchildren in Ramallah and Bethlehem were sent home early.
The quake was felt for about 20 seconds in the Jordanian capital of Amman, sending frightened residents out of their homes.
"It felt like doomsday was there," said Samia Bakhit, walking barefoot and in her night gown as she dragged her 5-year old son Yousef out of their home in an Amman suburb.
A source at the Syrian meteorology agency in Damascus reported several smaller aftershocks but no damage. On Sunday, several small quakes of magnitude were felt in northeast Syria.
The region is located along the Great Rift Valley, which runs for 3,000 miles between Syria and Mozambique and passes through the Dead Sea, below Jerusalem's eastern hills.
The fault line was caused by the separation of African and Eurasian tectonic plates 35 million years ago, a split that weakened the Earth's crust.
About 35 miles to the north, another fault line cuts the land east to west from the Mediterranean port of Haifa with the West Bank towns of Jenin and Nablus before reaching the Jordan River.
On Dec. 31, a small earthquake of magnitude 3.7 was measured in the Dead Sea region, but no damage was recorded.
The last big earthquake in the area was in 1927, when a magnitude 6.3 quake centered near Jericho in the West Bank, about 15 miles east of Jerusalem, killed more than 200 people.