The Story of the Gaza Mall

August 24, 2010
Richard Kuper


Gaza Mall Seeks to Make Statement of Resolve

The Gaza Mall, a 10-shop complex, opened a month ago and has provided ammunition to Israel’s fiercest defenders.

ETHAN BRONNER, August 22, 2010

GAZA CITY — Colognes by Hugo Boss, Dunhill and Givenchy line the shelves of the cosmetics shop. One of the two women’s clothing stores features a window mannequin in a hot pink T-shirt and low-slung jeans. In the supermarket freezer is Nestlé ice cream and on its shelves are salty and cheesy chips and doodles that well-off societies consume by the bagful.

Gaza, famous for its misery, has a shopping mall. It opened a month ago to considerable fanfare, with Palestinian television cameras trailing Hamas government officials meandering proudly around the bright new stores filled with imported goods.

For Hamas, and for the Hamas-linked group of local investors behind the enterprise, the two-story mall, with its central air-conditioning and underground parking, has deep symbolic value. It is proof, they say, that despite the Israeli and Egyptian effort to isolate this Palestinian coastal strip, it can develop and thrive. Let the message go out: We will not be defeated.

But symbols are a risky business, and Israel’s fiercest defenders have seized upon the mall for their own purposes as well. Wielding glossy photographs of the new shops, they ask: Is this the land of deprivation that you have heard about? How did they build a mall if no building materials are permitted into Gaza? How badly off can a place be that has just opened up a luxury mall? Those aid flotillas are sailing to the wrong place, they say.

The owners of the 10-shop complex here chose the name Gaza Mall in hopes of evoking the colossal consumer complexes across the developed world. Such places stretch endlessly with brand names and multiscreen cinemas, their floors linked by escalators surrounded by two-story fountains, the variety of edibles in their food courts matched only by the seductive mix of big-box stores and boutiques.

The Gaza Mall may seek to evoke such places, but it is not one of them. At 1,000 square meters, or a quarter of an acre, it is the size of a suburban residential lot in the United States and would fit in its entirety into a corner of any J. C. Penney. The stairs do not move. The piped-in music is Islamic. There are no appliances or electronics for sale, no movie screens, and exactly one fried-food restaurant. Its first floor is almost entirely taken up by a supermarket, a rarity in Gaza.

“We are about the size of one medium American store,” Salahadin Abu Abdu, the mall’s manager, acknowledged a bit sheepishly.

To the commentators who have never been here, certain points need to be cleared up. To those who contend the mall is proof that Gaza has construction materials: the building is 20 years old. To those who have described the mall as “gigantic” and “futuristic”: it is small and a bit old-fashioned. To Danny Ayalon, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, who wrote that the mall “would not look out of place in any capital in Europe”: it would.

But the broader point many of these advocates are making — that the poverty of Gaza is often misconstrued, willfully or inadvertently — is correct. The despair here is not that of Haiti or Somalia. It is a misery of dependence, immobility and hopelessness, not of grinding want. The flotilla movement is not about material aid; it is about Palestinian freedom and defiance of Israeli power.

“Gaza is not poor in the way outsiders think,” said Nida Wishah, a 22-year-old information technology student who was at the mall one recent afternoon. “You can’t compare our poverty with that of Africa.”

Modest though it is, the mall is a pleasant and cheerful complex, especially for Gaza. Tens of thousands of people have been passing through it, enjoying the air-conditioning, the window shopping and the recent arrival of many Israeli brands. Israel had kept those products out of Gaza for three years to pressure Hamas, the Islamist rulers here who reject Israel’s existence.

But a few months ago, when a six-boat flotilla challenged the blockade, Israeli commandos stopped it and, meeting resistance, killed nine people aboard one of the ships, causing international outrage and a shift in policy. In recent weeks, many more Israeli goods were available, though the economy remains in shackles and only a thin slice of the population can afford to buy the fancier items.

“This is for the elite,” Mr. Abu Abdu said. “The money you see here belongs to a very few people.”

Still, it is slightly bewildering to see in the new supermarket large tubs of Israeli hummus and jars of Israeli honey. Hummus is available on every other corner of Gaza, which has also long been famous for its honey.

A supermarket manager explains: the Israeli products contain preservatives and can last during the frequent electrical failures. He spoke under a dangling cardboard ad for Pringles.

As to the Gazans themselves, even those who can ill afford to buy here take a certain pride in it.

“It feels civilized here,” said Othman Turkman, 26, who works in conflict resolution and was comparison shopping. “It’s not for everyone, of course. Many in Gaza are poor and can’t enjoy the mall. But they have kept the prices the same as in other shops, which is good.”

Inas al-Hayak, who was working behind the counter at the women’s clothing shop, reading the Koran as Muslims do during the holy month of Ramadan, said she considered the mall “a source of honor for Gaza.” Dressed in Muslim modesty in a shop with a more risqué look, she added: “By opening the mall, we broke the siege. And we will keep challenging Israel in other ways. We are a strong people.”

A version of this article appeared in print on August 23, 2010, on page A7 of the New York edition.
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