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In Gaza, building houses with the sand

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Daniel Estrin

(Read caption) Hassan Abu Kmeil and a sand structure in Gaza City, Gaza.

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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

It’s not easy to build a house when cement and steel are in short supply. That’s the situation in the Gaza Strip two years after Israel’s military pummeled the seaside territory during an offensive against the militant Islamic group Hamas, which had been firing rockets across the border at Israeli cities. Thousands of Gazan houses were destroyed. Israel now allows a limited amount of construction materials to enter Gaza, but only for building projects implemented by international aid organizations, to keep the materials out of the hands of rocketmakers. It’s left a lot of Palestinian building engineers sitting on the couch at home.

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But not all of them. Hassan Abu Kmeil, a young, crisply dressed engineer, harked back to his college years when he learned about an Iranian engineer who built makeshift shelters out of sandbags following an earthquake. Inspired by the Iranian’s slapdash building, Mr. Abu Kmeil realized that to build in Gaza, he need not look further than his coastal enclave’s only abundant natural resource: sand.

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Abu Kmeil has built an after-school center for orphans, a villa, and changing rooms at a horse riding club – entirely out of sand. His workers fill bags with sand and mud and stack them one on top of the other before covering the structures in a thin layer of plaster. The buildings look like souped-up igloos, with multiple rooms and arched doorways.

“We had no other choice,” Abu Kmeil says, leaning against his after-school center, his ironed slacks covered in sand. “There weren’t other materials available.”

The structures, like sand castles, won’t last – Abu Kmeil says they have about a 35-year life span. And choosing to build from sand won’t last in Gaza, either: Smugglers are bringing in bags of cement in larger numbers through tunnels on the Gazan-Egyptian border, and cinder blocks made from recycled rubble are more readily available. Abu Kmeil’s workers have already begun a new structure, but this time they’re using cement and cinder blocks.

It leaves Abu Kmeil feeling bittersweet. Cement is preferable, he says, but to him the sand structures symbolize tenacity and creativity in the face of unusual conditions. When other engineers gave up, he placed his faith in sand.