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Feature: Few houses rebuilt in Gaza one year after restoration

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GAZA, Dec 28, 2009 (Xinhua via COMTEX) -- by Ahmed Aldabba, Fares Akram

One year after having his house completely destroyed during Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip, Majed al-Athamna has finally got a roof over his head.

The new house was smaller than the old concrete house, but the 62-year-old grandfather was very delighted to have the clay-walled dwelling.

"A clay house is better than a tent," said al-Athamna, whose new house, located in Abed Rabbo village north of the coastal enclave, is the first one rebuilt since the end of the three-week Israeli military operation on Jan. 18.

Al-Athamna, who used to be a wealthy man and now owns nothing but the clay hut, believes that the new house can be a temporary alternative to the tent, but not to his two-storey house which had sheltered his six-member family.

Al-Athamna's six sons had their houses destroyed during the offensive on Gaza too.

Israel has kept its closure on Gaza after the end of the war, making large-scale reconstruction impossible. The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has built al-Athamna's house as the beginning of a project to find solutions to the most desperate cases.

The design of the 80 square meters mud-bricked house, built on a hill overlooking Israel's borders, copies the ancient traditional brick buildings with big soft domes topping the arched rooms.

"We have no other choice," said al-Athamna. "We lived in a tent for one year and it was really unbearable and humiliating."

"Now we will not suffer from the heat and humidity in summer, and the rains and cold in winter," he said, recalling "hundreds of people who still live in the open for a year."

In fact the house was built at the expense of the UNRWA, but the inventor of the mud brick construction in Gaza is an ambitious Palestinian engineer.

In an attempt to overcome the Israeli restrictions, imposed when the Islamic Hamas movement took over the territory in 2007, Emad Al Khaledi, an engineer from Gaza and owner of an idle cement brick factory, thought about using earth resources two years ago.

"I thought of finding an alternative to cement when the Israeli blockade tightened," he said. "I tested many natural materials and finally came up with this product."

The product is a solid block, ready for construction. It is a mixture of sand, clay, calcium and water that are compressed together in one manual machine.

"After the war, the idea needed to be implemented on the ground, " he proudly said. "We started to produce the bricks after the material was successfully tested."

The materials and the blocks were tested in laboratories of the Islamic University and the Engineers' Syndicate and they proved high quality within the international standards, he said.

The manual machine produces 15,000 blocks each day, he said, adding that he is working on manufacturing an automatic machine which will produce 50,000 blocks every day.

Al Khaledi, an experienced engineer by profession and mud enthusiast by choice, said his initiative progressed in high speed, especially after the war on Gaza, as thousands of people were left homeless and had to live in tents and other makeshift shelters.

"We tried to build a house and the project was a success," said Al Khaledi, referring to al-Athamna's house. "The UNRWA asked us to produce bricks to build houses for displaced people after they saw how successful our work was."

When delivering the house to al-Athamna, John Gin, director of the UNRWA's operations in Gaza, said there are "tens of thousands of people who need help now" and the building of mud houses will only benefit "a few hundred of people who are in the worst scenario."

The Israeli offensive has left about 500 families in tents and destroyed or damaged 11,152 houses, according to the Gaza-based al- Mezan center for Human Rights.

Tens of donor countries pledged more than 4.4 billion U.S. dollars to rebuild the war-torn territory in a conference held in Egypt's Sharm al-Sheikh resort last march. But nothing happened on the ground up to now because of the Palestinian internal split as well as the tight siege.

As a result of the lack of materials, Al Khaledi believes that the future lies in mud architecture. "It's cheap, strong, neat and available all the time," he said.

In a way or another, al-Athamna was lucky to get a house, even if tiny, from the UNRWA, when other hundreds of homeless Palestinians still take makeshift tents as shelters. Shehada Al Kar'awi, 43, is one of those who have been living in tents for almost one year with a wife and five children.

Kar'awi's tent is pitched in a tent camp run by an Islamic NGO, only a few meters away from his destroyed house in Biet Lahiya town, north of Gaza Strip.

Kar'awi said his family will have to face another cold winter this year, as their house has not been rebuilt so far.

Last week, the heavens opened up for one night and rainwater flooded their tent as the family desperately tried to save belongings.

His two-storey house was destroyed in an aerial strike. He said it took five years to build it with money he made from building houses in Israel when he used to work in construction there.

"I built houses for Jews who came from Morocco, Yemen, Libya, Russia and other countries around the world. I built houses for them and they finally came and demolished my house," he said, ironically smiling as he lit an Egyptian-made cigarette and sipped a hot cup of tea near his white tent.