Decades-old Gaza homes make way for high-rises amid housing crunch

by Stefanie Glinski | @stephglinski | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 4 August 2021 03:01 GMT

Old homes in the Rimal area in central Gaza. June 18, 2021. . Thomson Reuters Foundation/Stefanie Glinski

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More than 2 million people live in the Gaza Strip and a growing population means new housing units are needed urgently

* Unprotected older buildings at risk of demolition

* Population growth fuels housing shortages in enclave

* May's conflict with Israel destroyed more than 2,000 homes

By Stefanie Glinski

GAZA, Aug 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Built more than 60 years ago, the sturdy Gaza house with ornate floor tiles and wooden shutters where Adnan Murtaga grew up could soon be demolished to make way for a high-rise - victim of a housing shortage in the crowded enclave.

The property lies just minutes away from the sea in Gaza City's sought-after Rimal neighbourhood, but Murtaga, 69, said that while he is attached to the home built by his father, he has made up his mind to sell.

"I keep wanting to plant more flowers, to beautify this home, but I'm stopping myself from doing it," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as he sipped coffee on a bench in the leafy garden.

About a dozen potential investors have approached him to buy the plot to build an apartment block, but so far their offers have been too low, he said.

The 365-sq km (141-sq mile) Gaza Strip is home to a growing population and needs new housing units - in part to replace homes destroyed in 11 days of fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants earlier this year, officials said.

"Families keep growing. We now have 2.2 million people in the Gaza Strip with an annual growth rate of 3.2%," Gaza City mayor Yahya al-Sarraj said in his office in the centre of the Old City, a bustling hub of market stalls and traffic jams.

A street in Gaza. June 24, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Stefanie Glinski

UNPROTECTED

Gaza is one of world's oldest cities, estimated to date back 5,000 years.

Today, it still has about 320 historic buildings that have shaped the city's character, meaning protected structures that were built more than 100 years ago - some dating back to the Mamluk Sultanate and the Ottoman Empire.

Regulations protect buildings that are more than a century old, but Sarraj said they are occasionally demolished, despite the threat of prosecution.

Unprotected older buildings like Murtaga's house are often pulled down to make way for new, taller structures, he added.

"While some people build on empty land, others demolish older buildings because most of them are centrally located, connected to roads, electricity and water," he said.

Families that have outgrown their homes sometimes give their plot in exchange for several apartments in the newly constructed blocks. With unemployment of about 50%, few families can afford to build themselves or pay expensive rents.

Such deals also reduce developers' upfront costs.

For years, building work has lagged demand for new housing in Gaza, where up to 70% of residents are refugees and many live in camps, and the skyline is dotted with half-finished structures.

People working in construction said that was partly due to the impact of an Israeli blockade that restricts the passage of people and goods - including building materials - as well as restrictions by Egypt.

Both countries cite concerns about weapons reaching Hamas, which rules Gaza.

"Every import and export is heavily regulated. This has affected the housing market," said Abu Ibrahim Lalmubaiad, a contractor overseeing the construction of a seven-storey building not far from Murtaga's home.

On the streets, people can be seen straightening out old metal rods from destroyed buildings, and even making new bricks from the rubble.

But despite the challenges of getting hold of materials and funding in Gaza, Sarraj said work on almost 100 new residential multi-storey buildings has started over the past year alone.

Contractor Abu Ibrahim Lalmubaiad oversees a team of labourers working on a new seven-storey house in Gaza. June 24, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Stefanie Glinski

ARCHITECTURAL HERITAGE

Housing conditions in Gaza were dealt another blow by this year's fighting, which killed 256 Palestinians and destroyed more than 2,200 homes.

Gaza's government has said another 37,000 were damaged by Israeli shelling during the conflict, and humanitarian agencies have put the latest reconstruction costs at $500 million.

Thirteen people were killed in Israel during rocket barrages that disrupted life and sent people running for shelter.

In Rimal, Murtaga said he hoped to sell his land for about $1,690 per square metre.

But despite the economic incentives of selling their property for redevelopment, some Gazan owners of traditional, single-storey homes are determined to preserve their architectural heritage.

Civil engineer Faisal Shawa, 54, still lives in the house built by his grandfather - a villa surrounded by trees and gardens - though the upkeep is expensive, he said.

A nearby Israeli air strike shattered windows and cracked walls at the house in May, though a prior warning from a neighbour who had received a phone call from the Israeli military meant the family could evacuate.

Shawa's house was built before the 1948 war of Israel's founding, which displaced more than 700,000 Palestinians from lands now in Israel. Many of them sought refuge in Gaza.

"Gaza is a treasure," Shawa said, adding that he would never consider demolishing the family house.

"Our home will continue to testify to our history," he said.

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(Reporting by Stefanie Glinski @stephglinski; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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