RAFAH, Gaza Strip — With Israel refusing to allow building materials across the border, the Hamas-led government in Gaza is pushing a new plan to replace thousands of homes destroyed by Israel's winter military offensive: mud-brick buildings.
To fix a degrading Gaza Strip sewage system, the Red Cross is using thousands of 25-foot cement slabs from the once-towering concrete walls along the Egyptian border that Hamas militants toppled last year.
It's been more than four months since Israeli soldiers left Gaza, but Israel is still blocking cement and other construction material, apparently as long as the Palestinian territory remains in the hands of the militant Islamic group, which doesn't recognize Israel's right to exist.
So Gazans are turning to scavenging to survive.
"We don't need cement," Abu Rami said as he knelt before a growing line of mud bricks for a house he's building on open land not far from the Egyptian border. "We have all the mud we need."
Abu Rami, a 52-year-old father of 12 who was reluctant to use his real name because of how he'd obtained his construction material, said he'd paid about $50 for a truckload of dirt excavated from the nearby smuggling tunnels to Egypt, rented a cement mixer and started building a new home.
Caked in mud as his sons shoveled dirt into the concrete mixer, Abu Rami said that Palestinians were going backward.
"My mother lived in a mud house for 40 years," he said. "Now we're living in mud, too."
The idea is catching on, and Hamas leaders in Gaza City have taken notice.
Sitting in his government office, one of the few that Israeli airstrikes haven't destroyed over the last three years, Ziad al Zaza, Gaza's deputy prime minister, pulled out drawings for a stylish three-story, multi-domed mud-brick building.
"I hope to break the siege by building this model," he said.
In the coming days, Zaza said, construction workers would break ground on the government's first officially sanctioned mud-brick building, which is for a children's charity. The construction site, he said, will double as a classroom for Palestinians who want to learn how to work with mud.
"After that, any Palestinian citizen whose house has been destroyed and wants to rebuild like this, they can," Zaza said.
Eventually, he said, the Israeli restrictions will become irrelevant because Gazans will find other ways to rebuild.
That may be wishful thinking, but Hamas leaders aren't the only ones who are interested in using the alternative building ideas in Gaza.
The United Nations Development Program has sought advice from Rashid Abdel Hamid, a noted Palestinian architect who designed Gaza's first contemporary mud-brick buildings more than a decade ago.
"There are people sitting on the ruins of their homes, so they have to find a solution," Abdel Hamid said.
One of Gaza's two Abdel Hamid mud creations is the signature Al Deira Hotel, an elegant, 22-room, seaside hotel that's long been a favorite of visiting journalists and diplomats.
The ban on sending construction materials into Gaza predates Israel's winter military offensive. Israel imposed it in June 2007, when Hamas militants routed Fatah rivals during a short civil war. Major international development projects have been on hold ever since.
So when Hamas militants toppled the iron and concrete Gaza-Egypt border walls last year, engineers from the International Red Cross, which is based in Geneva, seized the opportunity: They used 2,800 concrete slabs to build the shoreline for two much-needed sewage treatment ponds.
At first, Red Cross engineers said, Gaza government officials were skeptical. Then they saw the potential and started hauling away the slabs for their own use. After weeks of negotiations, the Hamas-led government returned the slabs to the Red Cross.
Last week, the Red Cross flooded the two football field-sized pools, creating surreal new sewage ponds bordered by hundreds of the concrete slabs.
"We are pioneers," said Marek Komarzynski, a Red Cross engineer who worked on the project.
The trailblazer in Gaza's modern-day mud-brick home movement is Jihad Shaer, a 36-year-old father of five, who now lives in a new two-bedroom house in Rafah.
Shaer said he'd seen mud-brick homes years ago in his travels as a salesman to Pakistan, Yemen and other parts of the region. Unable to afford the high-priced cement smuggled in from Egypt, Shaer decided to mix straw into the dirt, fashion sun-dried bricks and build the home.
He proudly took visitors on a tour of his house Wednesday afternoon as Israel's air force carried out airstrikes nearby on smuggling tunnels along the border.
The cracking walls keep the rooms cool, and Shaer said he was confident that they were thick enough not to dissolve in the winter rains.
During the tour, Shaer's friend came by to visit.
"I wish I had land to build a house like this," Mohammed Tawil said. "We were created out of mud; now we live in mud."
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