Reactivation of the Levant Passive Margin During the Late Tertiary and Formation of the Jaffa Basin Offshore Central Israel

March 16, 2008

By Gvirtzman, Zohar Zilberman, Ezra; Folkman, Yehoshua

Abstract: Re-examination of the stratigraphic record in the continental margin of Israel indicates that the Levant passive margin was reactivated in the late Tertiary. Subsidence and, presumably, sedimentation rates increased after prolonged gradual decay; the shelf-slope facies transition zone was revived; faulting and magmatism resumed and the Judea Hills began to rise. Two parallel fault systems with large vertical displacements were formed (or reactivated) between the Levant Basin and the continent. In the Levant Basin a new 4 km thick section accumulated and at a middle level between the two faults a local basin was formed and filled with a 2500 m thick section. That basin, termed here the Jaffa Basin, provides good age control. It was initiated in the Mid-Late Oligocene, was mainly active in the Miocene and was completely buried by sediments in the Plio-Pleistocene. We suggest that at the early stage of the Arabia-Africa breakup, in conjunction with the Suez rifting, the Jaffa Basin was formed between two segments of a left-lateral fault that allowed Arabia to slip northward relative to the Mediterranean lithosphere. When this fault failed to transform the motion, both the Suez Rift and the Jaffa Basin were abandoned and the plate motion jumped inland to the Dead Sea Transform.

The eastern Mediterranean basin and its passive continental margin (Fig. 1) formed as a result of several faulting and continental breakup phases in the Permian, Triassic and Early Jurassic (Freund et al. 1975; Bein & Gvirtzman 1977; Garfunkel & Derin 1984; Garfunkel 1988, 1998). The rifting activity had thinned the continental crust and produced rapid differential subsidence that was felt up to a distance of 50 km landward from the present coast (Garfunkel & Derin 1984; Druckman et al. 1995). The early Mesozoic synrift sediments and their abrupt thickness variations are well known from seismic data and from many wells that have penetrated them in central and southern Israel (Druckman 1974; Goldberg & Friedman 1974; Druckman et al. 1995). In the continental shelf offshore Israel the faulted structures are now buried under a very thick sedimentary column and are recognized only by seismic methods (Gelberman 1995; Gardosh 2002; Gardosh & Druckman 2006).

Passive margin conditions were established in late Liassic times over the previously faulted area (Garfunkel & Derin 1984) and persisted for c. 100Ma. Within that period a phase of intracontinental tectonism associated with lithospheric heating, magmatism, and uplift strongly affected the inland area (Garfunkel 1988; Gvirtzman & Garfunkel 1998; Gvirtzman et al. 1998), but its influence on the continental margin was relatively small. Then, at the beginning of the Senonian, when the African-Arabian plate started to collide with the EuroAsian plate, the entire region was affected by a compressional stress regime that formed the Syrian Arc Fold Belt (Krenkel 1929; Hensen 1951; Freund et al. 1975). This series of folds and faults extends for 1000 km from the Palmyra Mountains in Syria, through Lebanon and Israel, to the Sinai Peninsula (Fig. 1).

In the late Tertiary Israel and nearby areas were strongly affected by the break of Arabia from Africa that produced the Red Sea, the Suez Rift, and the Dead Sea Transform (Garfunkel 1988). The influence of these processes on the Levant margin is the topic of this study.


Passive margin sedimentation during the Jurassic and most of the Cretaceous was characterized by a facies transition zone, which separated the Arabian plate from the deep Mediterranean basin. The right-hand side of Figure 2 shows the shallow marine and continental rock units deposited on the ancient Arabian platform whereas the left-hand side presents the open marine units deposited in the ancient Mediterranean basin.

This facies transition, designated as the ‘hinge line’ or ‘hinge belt’ (Gvirtzman & Klang 1972; Bein & Gvirtzman 1977; Ginzburg & Gvirtzman 1979), is now buried in the Israeli coastal plain (the diagonal white lines in Fig. 1) under a thick Tertiary section. Interestingly, it does not coincide with the present shelf edge located a few tens of kilometres offshore.

In the mid-Cretaceous the depositional hinge belt disappeared and open marine conditions extended over the entire Levant region. Senonian-Eocene sediments of the Mount Scopus and Avedat groups (Fig. 2) yield no evidence for the earlier shelf edge and, lithologically, the formations defined in the present-day shelf are similar to those known on land and the same nomenclature is used for both regions. Thickness and facies variations in these units follow the NE-SW-trending, shortwavelength folds of the Syrian Arc.

Figure 2 describes the chronostratigraphic and lithofacies framework of seven groups known in the coastal plain, including formation names and correlations with the inland and offshore areas. The Jurassic Arad Group is mainly composed of limestone and dolomite. Marls and sandstones within that group are more abundant landwards, whereas reduced sections of micritic limestone and shale are more frequent basinwards. The Arad Group contains four cycles of transgressions and regressions; of these, only one cycle and a half is included in Figure 2. Older units that were penetrated in the coastal plain and offshore only by a few wells are not described.

The Lower Cretaceous Kurnub Group unconformably covers the eroded Jurassic section. This unconformity reflects Early Cretaceous uplift of the continental region caused by lithospheric heating and magmatism (Garfunkel 1988; Gvirtzman & Garfunkel 1997, 1998; Gvirtzman et al. 1998). At that time of strong inland erosion, a deep canyon was incised across the continental slope and a thick clastic section accumulated in the deep Mediterranean basin (Cohen 1976). Then, when sedimentation resumed, the previously uplifted regions were gradually covered by new sediments composing the Kurnub Group. In central and southern Israel this group is mainly composed of mature sandstone and shale (Hatira Formation) derived from the Arabian-Nubian Shield including some marine intercalations; in the coastal plain the marine component of the Kurnub Group prevails; and offshore fine clastic deposits of the Gevaram Formation deposited in deep waters are dominant. It should be noted that the Kurnub Group and its western equivalent are diachronic and that the Jurassic- Cretaceous hiatus narrows basinward (Fig. 2).

The overlying Judea Group is a rather monotonous sequence of shallow platformal carbonates. In Albian-Cenomanian times the edge of this platform was emphasized by well-developed fringing reefs, and voluminous calci-clastic detritus deriving from that edge accumulated along the continental slope to form the Taime Yafe Formation (Bein & Weiler 1976). Chronostratigraphically, however, the Taime Yafe Formation is partly equivalent to the Kurnub Group and partly to the Judea Group (Fig. 2).

In the beginning of the Senonian the nature of sedimentation changed significantly. Instead of limestone and dolostone, chalk and marl became the dominant sediment, manifesting regional deepening of the water. The Senonian-Palaeocene Mount Scopus Group consists mainly of chalk and marl with some chert, phosphorite, and oil shale (Flexer 1968; Garfunkel 1988). Facies and thickness variations within the group express synsedimentary tectonism of Syrian Arc folding. The overlying Avedat Group was deposited during the widespread Eocene transgression that reached Egypt and part of Arabia (Garfunkel 1988). In the coastal plain of Israel deep marine conditions prevailed and pelagic sediments were deposited almost continuously. In outcrops the Avedat Group is easily distinguished from the Mount Scopus Group, but in the subsurface (coastal plain and offshore) the two groups are hard to distinguish without palaeontological analysis, and, therefore, they were unified as one group named the HaShefela Group (left-hand side of Fig. 2). It should be noted that the absence of these two groups in the central coastal plain is interpreted in Figure 2 as the result of late Tertiary erosion. This important issue is discussed below.

The Late Eocene-Pliocene Saqiye Group will be described in more detail, because of its relevance to the present study. It is mainly composed of greenish to grey shales and marls differing from the more chalky character of the HaShefela Group. Based on its appearance in boreholes, the group was divided into the following formations: Bet Guvrin (chalky marl), Lakhish (biogenic limestone contemporaneous with the Bet Guvrin Formation), Ziqlag (reefal limestone), Bet Nir (conglomerate), Ziqim (pelagic marl with tuff and basalt flows), Pattish (reefal limestone), Mavqiim (anhydrite formed during the Messinian crisis), and Yafo Formation (pelagic shales). Among these, the Yafo Formation is the thickest and most homogeneous unit (Gvirtzman & Reiss 1965; Buchbinder 1969; Gvirtzman 1970; Gvirtzman & Buchbinder 1978; Buchbinder et al. 1986, 1993; Buchbinder & Zilberman 1997; Gvirtzman et al. 1997).

The Saqiye Group represents several sequences of regression and transgression that had formed a complicated pattern of deposition. During sea-level falls deep canyons were incised whereas during sea- level rises the canyons were flooded and filled with sediments, and coral reefs developed on their shoulders. At some point during the Pliocene sediment supply from the Nile River was high enough to fill up all the canyons and form a relatively flat surface on which the Pleistocene sandy Kurkar Group was deposited. The lithological boundary between the Saqiye and Kurkar groups is clear and sharp. In contrast to the pelagic nature of the Yafo Formation, the Kurkar Group is mainly clastic, containing a variety of sediments: calcareous sandstones (some strongly cemented and some loose), shaly to silty red sandstone (locally named ‘Hamra’), marine and continental clays, conglomerates, and sand dunes (Gvirtzman et al. 1984).

Motivation for the present study

A quantitative analysis of the sedimentary cover of the Levant margin, offshore Israel, distinguishing between tectonic-driven subsidence and sediment loading, shows that the post-rift subsidence produced by lithospheric cooling continued tens of millions of years after the early Mesozoic rifting (Garfunkel & Derin 1984; Ten Brink 1987; Tibor et al. 1992; Gvirtzman & Garfunkel 1998). This thermal subsidence decayed exponentially as a function of the time that passed since rifting and became very weak in the Late Cretaceous and early Tertiary. In the late Tertiary, however, sedimentation in the Levant margins was greatly enhanced, by rates faster than those of the early Mesozoic rifting stage (Tibor et al. 1992). This enhanced sedimentation was accompanied by renewal of the shelf-slope depositional transition zone (Buchbinder & Zilberman 1997) after more than 50 Ma in which it had ceased to exist. At that time the Ziqlag Formation (reefs) was deposited in a shallow marine environment and the Bet Guvrin and Ziqim formations were deposited in the open sea (Fig. 2). In addition, during the Miocene some magmatism occurred in the coastal plain (Gvirtzman 1970; Livnat 1974; Steinitz et al. 1978) after a very long quiescence; namely, c. 150Ma after the Jurassic magmatism that accompanied continental breakup and margin formation, and c. 100 Ma after the Cretaceous (mainly Early Cretaceous) magmatism that was associated with intra- continental heating (Garfunkel 1988; Gvirtzman & Garfunkel 1997, 1998).

The enhanced subsidence and sedimentation in the late Tertiary produced the Saqiye Group, which thickens from zero c. 15 km east of the present coastline, to c. 2200 m along the present coastline (e.g. Hof Ashdod-1 well, near the city of Ashdod, Fig. 1). This pattern of rapid sedimentation continued in the Quaternary, and the Kurkar Group thickens from zero c. 20 km east of the coastline, to c. 180 m under the coastline.

In contrast to the early Mesozoic history that was associated with subsidence and sedimentation throughout the country, during the late Tertiary the subsidence of the continental margin was accompanied by nearly 1000 m of inland uplift that formed the mountainous backbone of Israel along the Judea and Samaria Hills (Begin & Zilberman 1997). The short distance (c. 50 km) between the uplifting and subsiding provinces suggests that the two processes must be interrelated. Tibor and coworkers (Tibor 1992; Tibor et al. 1992, 1993) argued that both phenomena were influenced by the great sedimentary load of the Nile delta (more than 4 km in thickness) in the Pliocene. The bowl-like structure formed in this way caused the Levant continental margin to subside and the Judea Hills to rise (Fig. 3). However, reexamination of the stratigraphie record shows that the uplift of the Judea Hills and the enhanced subsidence of the continental margin had both begun long before the formation of the Nile delta. Ancient Miocene shorelines at the western flanks of the Judea Hills are associated with river fans and coarse alluvial conglomerates, indicating that when the Miocene sea invaded a few tens of kilometres inland and deposited the Ziqlag Formation (Fig. 2), the Judea Hills were high enough to remain emerged and to be eroded and incised by rivers (Buchbinder et al. 1986, 1993). Similarly, thick lower Saqiye sections of Oligocene and Miocene age under the present coastal plain and continental shelf indicate that the enhanced subsidence of the continental margin had also begun long before the Pliocene.

What caused the renewal of the shelf-slope depositional transition zone, the enhanced subsidence offshore, the inland uplift, and the magmatism? The combination of all these strongly indicates a significant change. The goal of this paper is to show that this change expresses renewal of tectonic activity in the (passive) Levant margin.


Our study is based on a geological synthesis and re-examination of the Mesozoic and Cenozoic sedimentary column in the Levant margin, Israel coastal plain and offshore. We combine known data with new evidence regarding sediment thickness, faulting, and erosional patterns. In the offshore area the new evidence is based on interpretation of recent 2D regional seismic sections. Thickness and structural maps were prepared based on the lithostratigraphic database of oil and gas wells drilled in Israel between 1953 and 2002 (Fleischer & Varshavsky 2002). This compilation, prepared under the auspices of the Earth Sciences Research Administration of the Ministry of National Infrastructures, is based on data collected from both published and unpublished reports of the Geological Survey of Israel (GSI), the Geophysical Institute of Israel (GII), and oil companies. The isopach and structural maps of Figures 4 and 5 show that the enhanced sedimentation in the late Tertiary was not uniform along the Levant margin. Rather, it formed a distinct basin offshore central Israel facing the old city of Jaffa. That basin is termed here the Jaffa Basin.

To understand the origin of that basin we examine evidence for late Tertiary faulting in its vicinity. We begin with re- examination of the top Judea Group structural map (Fig. 6), because all the faults in this map are necessarily post mid-Cretaceous (Fig. 2). This map, compiled by Fleischer & Gafsou (2003), comprises all the available data from oilwells and water wells, and seismic data. However, it does not include the offshore area or a part of the coastal plain, where the Judea Group laterally changes to the Taime Yafe Formation (Fig. 6).Therefore in the offshore area examination of faults is based primarily on seismic interpretation.

Unfortunately, this exact location of facies transition is a key area for our study; because it coincides with a c. 2500 m high structural step, which we think is a fault scarp bounding the Jaffa Basin from the east. This postulated fault is located just outside the structural map of Figure 6 in the transition zone, where the seismic horizons change their characteristics; thus, tracing it seismically is difficult. Therefore, we concentrate on the geological interpretation of such a huge step, and argue that, geologically, it is best explained by faulting.

To establish this interpretation we explore other observations, such as the absence of the Mount Scopus and Avedat groups along the elevated eastern rim of the basin. Absence of these sediments alone cannot indicate whether they were eroded or never deposited, because these sediments are characterized by original thickness variations related to their syntectonic accumulation. However, the Judea Group, whose original thickness pattern is clear, indicates erosion along the postulated fault scarp.

In the offshore area we face another difficulty with previously documented evidence for late Tertiary faulting. There is clear evidence for faulting, but its interpretation is controversial. Do faults detected in the Plio-Pleistocene prism express crustal-scale tectonics (Neev 1975, 1977; Neev et al. 1976; Neev & Ben Avraham 1977; Ben Avraham 1978; Mart et al. 1978; Mart 1982) or only deformation of sediments overlying the lubricant surface of Messinian evaporites (Garfunkel 1984; Garfunkel & Almagor 1985)? Seismic reflection data clearly show growth faulting associated with salt withdrawal at the edge of evaporites,’ whether or not there is deeper extensional faulting at this position is controversial.

Regardless of this controversy, we focus on a distinct area along the base of the continental slope where 2D seismic sections clearly show preMessinian deep faulting. These faults form an elongated shear zone that separates the Jaffa Basin from the deep Levant basin.

Two regional composite seismic sections across the shelf, continental margin and the eastern Levant basin were selected for interpretation (Figs 11 and 12). The seismic data were released for the study by the Israeli oil Commissioner. Good well control exists on the shelf and upper slope; however, correlation of two deep pre- Miocene markers across the continental margin fault zone is less certain owing to fault complexity and lack of well control in the basin.

Time interpretation was followed by depth conversion. Depth conversion procedure followed Gardosh & Druckman (2006). The resultant geoseismic sections were finally projected onto the corresponding regional cross-sections CC and DD’ and constructed the marine part of these cross-sections (Fig. 8).


Isopach and structural maps

The isopach map of the Saqiye and Kurkar groups (Fig. 4) demonstrates that the sedimentary fill of the Jaffa Basin thins in all directions. The western boundary of the basin is not well constrained by well data, but on its eastern side many details are yielded by hundreds of oil and water wells drilled in the Israeli coastal plain.

The three structural maps of Figure 5a-c indicate gradual development from an initial steep eastern wall to a later gently dipping eastern slope. This observation is consistent with a transformation from fault-controlled to flexure-controlled subsidence (but not with the flexure expected from the Nile load, which is much wider). Furthermore, Figure 5d indicates that the present land topography preserves the curved structure around the Jaffa Basin depocentre, whereas the sea-floor bathymetry with its almost straight contours does not. This means that recent deposition in the sea is much faster than the erosion on land and much faster than the tectonic subsidence; that is, Nile-derived sediments in the last 5 Ma have completely buried the Jaffa Basin and erased any palaeo-bathymetric differences in the continental shelf. However, land topography still preserves its influence. Another interesting observation is the somewhat rhombic shape of the surface of the base Saqiye Group (Fig. 4a), which is different from the bowl-shaped structure of the younger two surfaces (Fig. 4b and c). This observation is consistent with a transition from fault-controlled to flexure-controlled subsidence.

Evidence for late Tertiary faulting in the coastal plain

The structural map of the top Judea Group (Albian-Turonian) reveals numerous faults throughout the entire country including the coastal plain (Fig. 6). These faults necessarily indicate that the continental margin was deformed tens of millions of years after its formation, but exactly when is not always clear. Faults that are recognized as active (or potentially active) are related to the present tectonic activity associated with the Dead Sea Transform. These faults (marked in red) do not show any relation to the Jaffa Basin and are not present in the coastal plain south of Mount Carmel. Reverse faults with a NE-SW strike (blue) are present in the coastal plain, but they are associated with the Syrian Arc folds formed in the Late Cretaceous and early Tertiary and not with the Jaffa Basin. However, what about the rest of the faults in Figure 6, which are recognized as normal? Are they related to the Syrian Arc stress regime? If not, when and how did they form?

Miocene faulting in the coastal plain was suggested more than 30 years ago (Gvirtzman 1970) based on well data and on the very little seismic information available at that time (Fig. 7). It suggested displacement of Oligocene and Early Miocene formations and not Middle Miocene and younger units. Twenty-three years later a set of cross-sections based on a large amount of seismic material (Fleischer et al. 1993) confirmed the existence of late Tertiary faulting in the Sharon region (just south of Mount Carmel; see Fig. 1 for location), but it was not possible to determine the age of faulting in the central and southern coastal plain. In those regions faults are clearly detected up to the top Judea Group, but their continuation into the Mount Scopus, Avedat, and Lower Saqiye groups is unclear. Other studies, on the other hand, did trace faults continuing upward and displacing Oligocene, Miocene and even the base Pliocene Yafo Formation (Gelberman 1995).

In light of the difficulty in using seismic data for tracing faults in the facies hinge belt, we now concentrate on the nearly 2000 m high structural step that forms the eastern wall of the Jaffa Basin in the subsurface of the coastal plain (section DD’ in Fig. 8). That step is best detected by the base Senonian horizon, which is 200-300m below sea level on the eastern side (top Judea Gr.) and 2000-3000 m below sea level on the western side (top Taime Yafe Fm.). Between these areas, the Mount Scopus, Avedat, and part of the Judea Group are missing. We argue that this structural step was produced by faulting and that the absence of the Avedat, Mount Scopus, and part of the Judea Group indicates erosion of the fault scarp and not original nondeposition (see discussion). In addition, the presence of a thick lower Saqiye Group with coarse clastic deposits (the ‘Ashdod Clasts’ in section DD’) at the foothills of the eroded cliff strongly supports this interpretation.

The coastal plain fault does not continue beyond the immediate vicinity of the Jaffa Basin. To the north it dies away in the Sharon region, where it meets the EW Or Aqiva fault, and does not continue into the Carmel block (Fig. 4). To the south the high structural step gradually disappears, but whether or not the fault continues into the Sinai Peninsula without a noticeable vertical displacement is unclear at this stage.

The Sharon graben

In the Sharon region, NE of the Jaffa Basin, a local graben preserving a unique 200-70Om thick Oligocene-Miocene section is detected (Fig. 9). This graben is located outside the Jaffa Basin (Figs 1 and 6) and its vertical throw is not as large, but it has the potential to provide good age constraints on faulting. The preservation of the Bet Guvrin Formation in it and not in its immediate vicinity indicates either post- or synBet Guvrin faulting, but the Bet Guvrin Formation spans more than 20 Ma.

To better constrain the age of the faulting, a high-resolution biostratigraphic study was recently conducted on three water wells within the Sharon graben (Gvirtzman et al. 2005). Comparison of the Sharon graben with the Bet Rosh outcrop, 20 km to the NE, is shown in Figure 10. The correlation shows that the c. 300 m thick Oligocene-Miocene section in the Hadera-1 and Pardes Hanna boreholes is represented by a condensed c. 40 m thick section in the Bet Rosh outcrop. Whereas the lateral thickness variations in the Oligocene section may be interpreted as a gradual change in the subsidence rates, the abrupt thickness variation of the Miocene section across the eastern fault of the graben seems to indicate syndepositional faulting during the Miocene.

Curved band of truncation at the eastern rim of the Jaffa Basin

The unconformity at the base of the Saqiye Group is a well-known phenomenon in the subsurface of the Israeli coastal plain (Gvirtzman 1970; Gvirtzman & Buchbinder 1978). The amount of truncation expressed by this unconformity, however, is not clear. The absence of the Mount Scopus and Avedat groups (Santonian-Middle Eocene) alone does not necessarily indicate mid- or late Tertiary erosion, because these groups are characterized by large original thickness variations caused by the Syrian Arc folding. However, the amount of truncation of the underlying Judea Group (Albian-Turonian), whose original thickness can be evaluated more precisely, allows better evaluation of the late Tertiary erosion. The region in which the Judea Group is truncated and covered by the Saqiye Group is shown in Figure 6. Not surprisingly, the curved band of truncation perfectly fits the eastern rim of the Jaffa Basin and not the Syrian Arc structures.

Based on coincidence between the spatial distribution of the truncation and the eastern wall of the Jaffa Basin, and on the observation that the truncated Turanian rocks (Judea Group) are covered by upper Saqiye Group sediments, we suggest that uplift and erosion of the basin shoulder occurred at the same time as deposition of the lower Saqiye sediments in it. The deep canyons crossing the elevated eastern shoulder of the basin are well seen in the top Judea structural map (Fig. 6). Thirty years ago they were related to the Messinian desiccation crisis of c. 6 Ma (Gvirtzman & Buchbinder 1978), but later it was suggested that much of the incision occurred during the Oligocene and Miocene (Druckman et al. 1995), and a recent revision of the biostratigraphic data further constrains the first incision event to Mid-Late Oligocene and not earlier (Buchbinder et al. 2005).

New seismic evidence for late Tertiary faulting along the present continental margin

Regardless of the controversy about the nature of the PlioPleistocene faulting offshore Israel (thin-skinned salt-related faults or deep-seated tectonics), new evidence for pre-Messinian faulting is interpreted from modern multichannel 2D seismic sections (Figs 11 and 12). The new data confirm the existence of faults approximately along the line designated by Neev as the Pelusiun Line (Fig, 4), but not their current activity. These faults displace the base Saqiye reflector (as well as older reflectors), but not Messinian evaporites.

It should be noted that in Figure 12 the base Senonian horizon is displaced much more than the base Oligocene horizon. Moreover, the Senonian-Eocene interval clearly appears to thin significantly towards the continental margin fault zone. These features indicate that much of the faulting occurred in the Late Cretaceous. The compressive reverse nature of the faults at several locations is also consistent with Senonian-Eocene activity. None the less, the data clearly show that significant additional displacement took place during the Oligocene-Miocene, when a huge c. 3 km thick lower Saqiye section was deposited at the base of the continental slope. For comparison, the thickness of that section east of these faults in the Jaffa Basin is only around 500 m.

How does the Pelusium shear zone continue beyond the immediate vicinity of the Jaffa Basin? Although our seismic data are limited to offshore Israel, other studies documented the continuation of the Pelusium Line northwards, to offshore northern Israel, and to offshore Lebanon (Neev & Ben Avraham 1977; Gradmann et al. 2005; Netzband et al. 2006). To the south, the bathymetric manifestation of the shelf edge fades out within the area influenced by the Nile Cone. Whether or not the Pre-Messinian fault zone continues south under the thick Nile-derived sediments is unclear from the data at this stage.


Renewal of tectonic activity and the formation of the Jaffa Basin

The general picture emerging from the data indicates that a significant change occurred in the Levant continental margin in the late Tertiary. Subsidence and sedimentation rates increased after tens of millions of years of gradual decay; the shelf-slope depositional transition zone was renewed after more than 50 Ma in which it ceased to exist; normal faulting resumed c. 150 Ma after the last rifting event; and magmatism resumed after tens of millions of years of quiescence. Altogether we conclude that the Levant margin became active again in the late Tertiary. In particular, two parallel fault systems were formed or reactivated along the continental margin, producing two huge structural steps (Figs 8 and 13). The west fault system extends along the present continental margin and the east system extends along the coastal plain. Between these, the Jaffa Basin was formed offshore central Israel, and while this basin as well as the deeper Levant basin started to subside and accumulate sediments, the Judea Hills began to rise. Cross-section DD’ (Fig. 8) shows that the tectonic step related to the coastal plain fault system is about 2500 m high and that the step of the continental margin system is about 3500 m high. A third structural step of about 1500 m is located on the western flanks of the Judea Hills, but its origin and age cannot be determined at this stage because of the lack of late Tertiary sediments across this line. Cross-section CC north of the Jaffa Basin (Fig. 8) shows only the western structural step. In that section the Judea Group gently dips from the Samaria Hills westward across the coastal plain until it reaches the shelf edge fault system where it jumps downward into the Levant basin. The Netanya-2 well, located in the Sharon region (well location is shown in Fig. 6), penetrates a thick Saqiye Group section overlying the truncated Judea Group. This is interpreted as a canyon that had drained southward into the Jaffa Basin before it was filled up by Oligocene sediments, including the Ashdod Clasts and basalt flows. In other words, it provides another indication for the formation of a huge elevation difference between the inland and offshore areas at that time.

Seismic evidence for pre-Messinian faulting along the western system (the Pelusium Line) is now clear, but seismic evidence for the eastern system and its branches is incomplete. The Sharon graben at the NE rims of the Jaffa Basin is detected seismically; a minor fault east of the main postulated fault (the 200 m high structural step) has also been detected seismically (Gelberman 1995). However, the main fault producing the 2500 m high steep eastern wall of the Jaffa Basin has still not been detected seismically. In our opinion the lack of seismic evidence for this fault is related to the difficulty in tracing faults in a facies transition belt, especially when this belt coincides with the present-day coastline where land surveys are not well tied with sea surveys.

On the other hand, we have presented a line of circumstantial evidence regarding erosion, incision, and coarse conglomerates that strongly suggests that this huge step is a fault scarp. An alternative non-tectonic explanation is that it represents the ancient early Mesozoic continental slope (Gardosh 2002; Gardosh & Druckman 2006). According to this interpretation the steep continental slope did not accumulate sediments during the Senonian- Eocene period while it was covered by deep waters. We do not favour this explanation for several reasons. First, it is hard to believe that a slope of c. 15[degrees] was preserved during 50 Ma of sedimentation without being reduced and without being covered by sediments that were deposited at both its sides (seaward and landward). Second, the spatial pattern of the Judea Group truncation perfectly fits the eastern wall of the Jaffa Basin and does not extend along the continental margins north or south of the Jaffa Basin (Figs 6 and 13).

Age of the basin formation and basin fill

In general, erosion of the eastern shoulder of the Jaffa Basin before the Pliocene and the accumulation of the thick lower Saqiye Group section within the basin indicate that the basin was initiated somewhere during the Oligocene-Miocene interval. The shelf edge fault system, displacing the base Saqiye reflector and not the Messinian evaporites above it, indicates a similar time frame of about 30 Ma. Additional knowledge regarding specific stages in the basin’s evolution can be derived from local features. The Ashdod Clasts started filling a canyon that drained to the Jaffa Basin (near the city of Ashdod) in the Mid-Late Oligocene (Buchbinder et al. 2005); the Sharon graben indicates that most of the faulting probably occurred in the Miocene; the burial of the coastal plain fault scarp by the hundreds of metres of the Yafo Formation indicates that faulting had weakened in the Pliocene; but the minor fault displacing the base Yafo Formation (Gelberman 1995) indicates either Late Miocene faulting buried by Pliocene sediments or that faulting did not completely stop until somewhere within the Pliocene.

The examination of palaeo-water depths also leads to the conclusion that tectonic activity weakened in the Pliocene. Sediment progradation with well-developed clinoforms in the Yafo Formation (Ben Gai 1996; Gardosh 2002; Gardosh & Druckman 2006) indicates that during the Pliocene the rate of sediment supply (mainly from the Nile) exceeded the rate of creation of new accommodation space. Detailed palaeontological study (Buchbinder et al. 2000, 2003; Almogi-Labin et al. 2001) also supports this conclusion by showing that water depth in the Jaffa Basin depocentre had gradually decreased from more than 500 m in the Early Pliocene to c. 100-200m in the Late Pliocene and early Pleistocene. Thus, we conclude that Nile-derived sediments filled a pre-existing deep-water basin that was formed 10-20Ma earlier. In other words, whereas the lower Saqiye Group represents basin initiation, the thick Yafo Formation reflects its termination and complete burial.

Tectonic framework

The formation of the Jaffa Basin as well as the uplift of the Judea Hills predated the main activity on the Dead Sea Transform by c. 15 Ma. The Dead Sea Transform was initiated at around the Middle Miocene and a third of its strike-slip activity occurred in the Plio- Pleistocene (Garfunkel & Joffe 1987; Garfunkel 1988; Bosworth et al. 2005). The Jaffa Basin was initiated in the Mid- or Late Oligocene; it was mainly active in the Miocene; and it gradually decayed and was buried by sediments in the Plio-Pleistocene.

What else happened in the region in the Late Oligocene and Early Miocene? At that time Africa and Arabia were breaking apart and the Red Sea was opening. At the northern tip of the Red Sea rifting was concentrated in the Gulf of Suez, which was initiated in the latest Oligocene and Early Miocene; it was mostly active during the Early- Mid-Miocene; and diminished in the Pliocene (Garfunkel & Bartov 1977; Scott & Govean 1985; Steckler & ten Brink 1986; Steckler et al. 1988). In other words, the Jaffa Basin is coeval with the Suez Rift; they were both formed at the early stage of the Africa-Arabia breakup and abandoned when most of the plate motion jumped inland to the Dead Sea Transform (Steckler & ten Brink 1986).

In northern Israel, extensional tectonics predating the Dead Sea Transform is known from the Yizreel Valley (Schulman 1962; Freund 1970; Shaliv 1991), which is a half-graben that developed in the Early Miocene along the Carmel Fault (Matmon et al. 2003). The NW continuation of that half-graben is the Haifa basin offshore the city of Haifa (Schattner et al. 2006) and, not surprisingly, its sedimentary fill is similar to that of the Jaffa Basin; that is, synrift sediments between the Mid-Oligocene and Early Miocene, and post-rift burial by Pliocene sediments (Schattner et al. 2006). Furthermore, Schattner et al. suggested that the Haifa basin is the NW tip of the Qishon-Sirhan rift system that developed in conjunction with the Red Sea-Suez graben system. However, in contrast to the Jaffa Basin and the Suez Rift, which were abandoned when the Dead Sea Transform took most of the plate motion, the Qishon graben was reactivated and became an active branch of the Dead Sea Transform (Schattner et al. 2006).

What is the relationship between the two NW-SE-trending rifts, the Gulf of Suez and the Yizreel-Qishon-Haifa system (Carmel Fault), and the reactivation of the Levant margin? Were they all part of the early Africa-Arabia breakup prior to plate motion shifting inland? The northward continuation of the Red Sea extension north of the Gulf of Suez continues to be a mystery. The Early Miocene opening of the Gulf of Suez decreases northwards, but is still significant when the rift disappears beneath the Nile Delta (Steckler et al. 1988). Various proposals suggest that it continues either to the west (Courtillot et al. 1987), to the north (Masele et al. 2000), or to the east (Steckler & ten Brink 1986). Here we raise the possibility that it terminates at the point where it meets a left-lateral strike- slip fault that runs along the Israeli continental margin. This transform fault allowed Arabia to slip northward relative to the Mediterranean lithosphere before the plate motion jumped inland to the Dead Sea Transform (Fig. 14). This kinematic model can also explain the subsidence of the Jaffa Basin without regional east- west extension, which is not observed. According to this model, at least a part of the basin subsidence may be attributed to north- south extension produced between the two segments of the left- lateral strike-slip fault. However, in contrast to many other examples, here the strike-slip motion did not form a rhomb-shaped graben. Here the vertical motion between the rising continent and the subsiding Mediterranean basin formed an intermediate step on which the Jaffa Basin developed (section DD’). The relation between the tectonic subsidence and sediment loading, particularly during a period of voluminous sediment supply by the Nile River, is beyond the scope of this paper.


(1) The Levant margin was tectonically reactivated in the late Tertiary by faulting, accelerated subsidence and magmatism.

(2) Two parallel fault systems were formed (or reactivated), one along the present shelf edge and a second along the Israeli coastal plain. (3) The Jaffa Basin formed between these two fault systems.

(4) The Jaffa Basin was initiated in the Mid- or Late Oligocene; it was mainly active in the Miocene; it gradually became inactive and was completely buried by sediments in the Plio-Pleistocene, leaving no sign of its existence in the present bathymetry.

(5) Initially the eastern wall of the Jaffa Basin was a fault scarp hundreds of metres high that was strongly eroded and incised by rivers. In the Pliocene, when faulting weakened, this fault scarp was buried by Plio-Pleistocene sediments now building the Israeli coastal plain.

(6) The Jaffa Basin was formed in conjunction with the Suez and the Yizreel-Qishon rifts. It was abandoned when most of the plate motion jumped inland from the Gulf of Suez to the Dead Sea Transform.

(7) Attributing a strike-slip motion to the Levant margin fault system during the early stage of the Africa-Arabia breakup and prior to the inland jump of the plate motion to the Dead Sea Transform is a new paradigm suggested here.

(8) This paradigm explains the relationship between the two NW- SE-trending rifts (the Gulf of Suez and the Yizreel-Qishon-Haifa system (Carmel Fault)) and the reactivation of the Levant margin. It also provides a mechanism for the subsidence of the Jaffa Basin without east-west extension.

We greatly acknowledge Michael Steckler and Shimon Feinstem for many fruitful discussions and important comments on the first draft of this paper. The constructive reviews by Paul Wilson and Joe Cartwnght accompanied by the editorial comments by Ian Alsop greatly improved this manuscript. Finally, thanks to the Israel Science Foundation for their financial support


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Received 2 January 2007; revised typescript accepted 11 July 2007.

Scientific editing by Ian Alsop


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