From a tent to a mud house in Gaza

Majid al-Athamna standing outside his new home made from mud.

Majid al-Athamna, 70, stands next to his new home in Gaza’s Izbet Abed Rabbo neighborhood of Jabaliya. Since the Israeli attack one year ago, which destroyed his family’s three-story building, he and his family lived in a tent.

The al-Athamna family’s new home is made of mud. It is part of an effort by UNRWA — the UN agency for Palestine refugees — to cope with the fact that due to the ongoing Israeli blockade only 41 trucks of building supplies have been allowed in to Gaza during the entire past year. This negligible quantity cannot begin to make a dent in the massive need to rebuild thousands of homes, schools, public buildings and basic infrastructure targeted by Israeli bombing.

Estimates put the number of Palestinians in Gaza still displaced at around 40,000. Many live in tent camps erected by the UN, while others are staying with relatives or friends.

UNRWA plans to build more houses like the one the 10-member al-Athamna family now occupies, with two bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. According to UNRWA officials, the mud houses cost around $18,000 each to build, using locally-made mud bricks as well as salvaged bricks from destroyed homes. Cement and iron — normally used in building in Gaza, but now in desperately short supply due to the siege — are not required.

Majid al-Athamna is relieved that his family now has a home, but said “we are still overwhelmed by this desperate situation.” He expressed his anger at what Israel did to his and so many other families. “Those who destroy homes of helpless civilians can never be called democratic,” he said.

Suha al-Athamna preparing maftoul.

The al-Athamna’s new home.

Al-Athamna’s daughter Suha sat preparing maftoul, a traditional Palestinian version of couscous, in the new home’s kitchen. “Thank God, this house is so much better than the tent. I do look forward to living in peace and security, and I hope the Israelis will not attack us again.”

Um Raed al-Athamna, Majid’s wife, spoke about how her high blood pressure and diabetes had worsened while living in the tent. “Now at least we have walls to protect us from the heat and cold,” she said.

The al-Athamna home is the first UNRWA-sponsored mud house in Gaza. The Hamas government has also initiated small-scale reconstruction mostly focused on rebuilding government buildings bombed by Israel.

The Minister of Housing and Construction in the Hamas government, Yousif al-Mansi, told The Electronic Intifada that mud brick houses are somewhat expensive and inefficient because the technique does not allow buildings to be very tall. In the crowded Gaza Strip, there is a need for higher-density buildings.

In March 2008, donors including the United States, European countries and some Arab states pledged $4 billion dollars for reconstruction in Gaza, but this aid has yet to flow into Gaza because of the Israeli siege.

For the al-Athamna family at least, their new home means no more nights in a tent, even if, as Um Raed said, they are still refugees: “We Palestinians have not been living normally as others in this world. Enough of us being pushed from one refuge to another!”

All images by Rami Almeghari.

Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.