Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 May - 3 June 2009
Issue No. 949
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Reduced to mud

While testament to famed Palestinian ingenuity, the sight of Gazans making houses out of mud is a visual condemnation of Israel's siege on the Strip, writes Saleh Al-Naami

Despite the cold, the driver's face poured sweat as he drove his truck through the mounds of mud scattered along the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. His mission was to transport as many truckloads of mud as possible to Rafah City for use in the production of bricks that Palestinians are now using in the construction of mud houses.

This driver, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Al-Ahram Weekly that people have discovered a new and important benefit to the border tunnels. When tunnels are dug, mounds of mud are created, and this mud is considered prime for the production of mud bricks. Under the siege, and due to Gazans' loss of hope that reconstruction projects will rebuild the thousands of houses and institutions destroyed by the Israeli occupation, particularly during its New Year offensive, many homeowners have begun to explore the mud alternative. Necessity is driving them to this decision, and the ministries and institutions of the Hamas government are encouraging them. This dismissed government has formed a committee that is issuing recommendations to construct model mud houses and institutions. And since Rafah City is near the tunnels, the idea of mud houses is being applied there first.

In the Tel Al-Sultan neighbourhood in southeast Rafah City, people have begun moving mud close to destroyed homes and then preparing mud bricks and commencing construction. Yet the idea has also spread to other areas of the Gaza Strip, particularly in Khan Younis north of Rafah, where people have also found that tunnel waste can solve their immediate problems. Some people are going to the tunnel areas themselves to select the type of mud they want to use in construction. Others have found in this new situation a source of income at a time when the economy is in freefall decline. The excitement of Mohi Lutfi Abu Abid was apparent as he telephoned his workers in the marble factory he owns in Rafah City and which the siege forced him to close down. He made them an unexpected offer: to turn the premises into a factory for the production of mud bricks.

Abu Abid, who lives in Tel Al-Sultan, told the Weekly that the idea brewed in his mind after he visited a friend whose house had been destroyed in the recent war on the Gaza Strip and found that he had built a mud house in its place. He was impressed with the house and decided to build one like it for himself. He says that after he built the house, consisting of three rooms and a bathroom, everyone who saw it was impressed and he came up with the idea of a mud brick factory. He has now designed several sizes and shapes of mud brick moulds. He mixes the mud with sand at a 2:1 ratio, and then adds a bit of the crushed ruins of destroyed houses. Some straw is added to the mud and sand to help it stick better.

Abu Abid says that his neighbours are taken with his idea and expect that with his new endeavour he will contribute to finding solutions for thousands of people whose houses have been destroyed. The government led by Ismail Haniyeh has encouraged citizens to turn to mud alternatives since the siege has made other building materials unavailable, and the government has itself begun building some model mud houses and utilities.

Minister of Public Works in Gaza's dismissed government Youssef Al-Mansi says that his government has begun building mud houses and utilities in order to deal with the immense damage caused to the Gaza Strip during Israel's last offensive. In a statement to the Weekly, Al-Mansi said that the move towards mud alternatives for building has become a necessity dictated by reality under the stifling siege, which bars the entry of basic building materials to Gaza. The Haniyeh government has adopted the recommendations of a technical committee that was recently formed to study mud construction as a temporary solution to the severe shortage of housing and other buildings.

Al-Mansi says that the government will begin building mud models of a mosque, school, and clinic, as an experiment to be evaluated, and that projects of this kind will then be commenced on a larger scale. Al-Mansi points out that the technical committee recommended making use of the rubble of destroyed buildings in the construction of mud replacements. In the first stage, three-storey houses and buildings will be constructed and then consideration will be given to adding more floors to meet housing and office needs. Yet the completion of mud houses and buildings won't be easy, Al-Mansi warns, for the ability to install plumbing, electricity, and doors and windows is somewhat lacking.

Al-Mansi says that since the world is not moving to break the siege, and the problem of reconstruction remains standing, it is the right of Palestinians to try all possible alternatives in an attempt to overcome the immense shortage in houses and buildings in thousands by the Israeli army. Tens of thousands of Palestinian citizens are currently living without shelter and need quick solutions. Al-Mansi also points out that these kinds of alternatives are proof of the Palestinians' perseverance. Gazans are determined to overcome all difficulties and to challenge the occupation, he says, noting that the dismissed government has made great efforts to communicate with Arab and international governments and institutions to open the borders and bring cement and construction materials into the Strip, as well as to break the siege, begin reconstruction projects, and return life to normal.

Salah Al-Aydi, 49, lives in Al-Maghazi Refugee Camp, although his three-storey house was destroyed in an Israeli air raid. "It's natural for people to resort to building themselves shelter with mud despite all that means in terms of going back so many years," he told the Weekly. "People whose houses were destroyed have no choice other than to seek alternatives that can guarantee a minimum of normal life conditions, for no one can accept to live without shelter."

Ibrahim Al-Najjar, who lives in the eastern part of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, had his house destroyed in the last war when an F-15 jet dropped a tonne and a half of explosives on it. He's now living in his brother's home with the five members of his family, and says that he's feeling encouraged by the idea of building a mud house near the remains of the one that was destroyed. "I was hopeful that the national dialogue would be a success since that was a condition for commencing the reconstruction process, but now I have given up on it. I need to find an alternative to betting on mirages, and I need to provide my family with an alternative that will safeguard their dignity, even if it's a mud house," he says. "I know that it will be difficult for my children to adjust to this situation that they never expected to experience in their worst nightmares."

Yet not everyone whose homes were destroyed is willing to live in mud houses. Some are living in rented apartments, although they are a minority of the wealthy and those who receive financial support from family living abroad. Others, and they are many, are living with their families in tents.

The Interior Ministry of the dismissed government has reopened several institutions in tents erected beside the rubble of their original buildings destroyed in the war, and hundreds of citizens visit them daily to complete various government procedures. The problem of reconstruction was one of the disputes holding up national dialogue, and Fatah and Hamas are still considering the formation of a committee -- comprising all the factions and independent figures -- that would oversee reconstruction as and when ordinary materials are permitted by Israel to enter the destroyed Strip.

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