DUBAI: For Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, “home” is a concept that rarely conjures images of security and stability.
Israel and Hamas have waged four short but savage wars since the militant group took control of this fragment of territory in 2007.
With each wave of violence comes a new cycle of destruction and reconstruction, a “recycling of pain,” as Gaza-based artist Mohamed Abusal told Arab News.
In late May, tens of thousands of Palestinians returned to their homes in Gaza to inspect the damage after 11 days of fighting – the most serious escalation of hostilities since the 2014 war.
According to Palestinian officials, at least 2,000 homes have been destroyed and 15,000 damaged by the latest wave of violence, further degrading the already fragile humanitarian situation in Gaza, long suffocated by an Israeli and Egyptian blockade.
Gaza had yet to recover from the 2014 war when fighting resumed on May 10. Older buildings now stand like crumbling tombstones next to recently shattered buildings. It is a sight too familiar to the inhabitants of the territory.
To help redefine Gaza’s ravaged urban topography, Palestinian architect Salem Al-Qudwa has developed a series of do-it-yourself, flexible, eco-friendly and affordable house designs.
The innovative design means units can be built on sand or rubble and easily nested, allowing extended families to live under one roof – a potential lifeline for widows or orphans from recent fighting.
“These are houses that can empower the community in Gaza,” said Al-Qudwa, a member of the Conflict and Peace with Religion and Public Life program at Harvard Divinity School.
“The Israelis have destroyed multi-storey buildings and plunged their residents into poverty. They lost everything. That is the problem right now, this never-ending cycle of destruction and reconstruction, but, more importantly, the destruction of the physical and social fabric of Gazan society.
Al-Qudwa was dismayed to see a repeat of the havoc wrought in Gaza in 2014.
“These attacks pushed back Gaza for decades, destroying infrastructure in many parts of the city as well as the social fabric, which is crucial when it comes to housing,” he said. “Now the 2021 conflict pushes Gaza back 50 years. “
The 2014 war destroyed around 18,000 homes, leaving around 100,000 Palestinians homeless. However, the temporary wooden structures built by international aid agencies involved in post-war reconstruction were not suited to the needs of large families and did not provide adequate temperature controls.
Instead of consulting locals on how to proceed with the reconstruction of Gaza, aid agencies turned to foreign architects, “coming to replace our social structure with a mud house, a sandbag or a shelter in wood, ”Al-Qudwa said.
As governments and relief agencies pour money back into the reconstruction effort in Gaza, Al-Qudwa fears that the same fragile structures will be built, preventing residents from securing sustainable housing that represents the stability, permanence and hope for the future.
Al-Qudwa, born in 1976 to a Palestinian family in Benghazi, Libya, returned to Gaza at the age of 21 to study architectural engineering at the Islamic University of Gaza. He then obtained a doctorate. from the Oxford School of Architecture at the University of Oxford Brookes in the United Kingdom.
In 2020, he moved to the United States with his American-Palestinian family after earning a scholarship at Harvard Divinity School.
While working for Islamic Relief Worldwide, Al-Qudwa created the Poor and Damaged House Rehabilitation Project, which designed houses ranging from modest single rooms to spacious houses with communal courtyards, for more than 160 families in low income.
“I helped them build a kitchen, a bathroom and a bedroom and for them it was like they had a castle,” he said.
The project was so transformative that it was shortlisted for the World Habitat Award and received a commendation in 2018.
“The project undertaken with Islamic Relief allowed me to work on characterizing reconstruction projects in terms of feasibility,” Al-Qudwa said. It also taught her the value of taking into account what communities really want in the form of sustainable and sustainable housing.
“This led me to see the need for simple architecture as well as a revaluation of traditional construction techniques, in connection with the participation of residents in the process of designing and building their houses.
Gaza’s minimalist architecture is the product of its dire circumstances. But Al-Qudwa sees his homeland’s rudimentary urban landscape, and even its shortage of building materials, as an opportunity for more positive social transformation.
Part of the challenge in Gaza comes from the Israeli blockade in place since 2007, which limits access to some building materials.
Before the occupation, limestone was a material commonly used in local architecture. It is now far too expensive to import from the West Bank, making concrete from Israel the most popular material of choice.
Al-Qudwa is developing plans for three five-story concrete houses, each with proper insulation and built on solid foundations – in stark contrast to the emergency and transitional structures offered by aid agencies.
Unlike the monotonous block structures typically forged from concrete, Al-Qudwa uses the material creatively, enlivening his designs with nods to traditional Arabic motifs, incorporating lattice screens, brick patterns and even shared lessons.
Each structure has a row of columns, allowing additional floors to be added at a later date. “They are ‘columns of hope’ because with columns you get the idea that something will be added to the structure within a certain period of time,” Al-Qudwa said.
As he has shown through his designs, there are many ways to create low cost homes that are attractive and also maintain a sense of community even when resources are scarce.
In addition, its new prototypes use solar water heaters, gray water recycling and rainwater harvesting systems – all crucial design elements in a region that has long suffered from power cuts and shortages. of water.
Al-Qudwa’s enduring designs run counter to other local reconstruction strategies, including Rawabi, which means “The Hills” in Arabic, the first town planned for and by Palestinians in the West Bank near Birzeit and Ramallah.
Spanning 6.3 square kilometers, the monotonous block-style structures are arranged in rows, similar to those found in Israeli settlements erected in the West Bank.
As the Palestinians pick up the pieces of the latest carnage, Al-Qudwa’s work offers a glimmer of hope for a more permanent future, both structurally and psychologically.