GAZA CITY, GAZA STRIP - In a welcome sign of normalcy, a new Western-style indoor shopping mall - complete with an international retail chain, three-story bookstore and bustling food court - has opened in the Gaza Strip.
The owners have overcome conflict and an Israeli-Egyptian blockade to build the gleaming 1,800 square meter (19,000 sq. feet) Capital Mall. Now, they just have to find enough free-spending customers to keep the place afloat.
In many ways, the center is a reflection of the fragile local economy, which has been flooded by consumer goods from Israel that few people can afford. Stifled by the blockade, Gaza produces very little on its own, and poverty and unemployment have soared. The mall, like the rest of electricity-starved Gaza, requires a generator to keep the power flowing.
In the short term, the mall appears to be thriving. Thousands of Gazans have visited as it slowly opened in recent weeks, buying shoes and clothes from the Turkish chain "De Facto,'' searching for gifts and school supplies in the bookstore and heading up to the fourth-floor food court to enjoy burgers, pizza and ice cream. People can often be seen stumbling and giggling as they ride an escalator for the first time.
"The mall has added a beautiful touch to the Gaza Strip. Instead of visiting more than one place, we go to a specific place and select everything we need,'' said Hedaya Iqtifan, a university graduate who has been three times.
While Gazans refer to a handful of small shopping centers as "malls,'' the Capital Mall is the first to be built according to global standards.
There are stores that sell perfume and makeup, home decor and mobile phones. There are clinics and office space, two parking lots and plans to bring a supermarket. The busiest area of the mall is the food court, where a cheeseburger with potato chips and a drink costs about $5.
"We made this according to international standards to relay an image to the world that Gaza has a mall similar to the malls in other countries,'' said Mahmoud Haniya, the mall's executive director.
He noted that several international brands refused to allow franchises in Gaza due to the "stereotype they get about Gaza; a poor country with no economy." He declined to identify them, but several international brands, including KFC and Domino's Pizza, operate in the West Bank.
Gaza's already poor economy took a downturn after the Islamic militant group Hamas seized control of the territory from the internationally backed Palestinian Authority in 2007.
Israel and Egypt quickly imposed the blockade in what they say is a measure to prevent Hamas, an armed group sworn to Israel's destruction, from importing weapons. The blockade, along with three wars between Israel and Hamas, has caused the economy to grind to a near standstill.
Today, nearly 80 percent of Gaza's roughly 2 million people live below the poverty line. Unemployment is over 40 percent and electricity is supplied for eight hours a day at best. Israel and Egypt, hostile to Hamas, restrict travel in and out of Gaza.
The Capital Mall spends $500 on diesel fuel for an industrial 400 KVA generator every 10 hours to keep the lights on. "It's like one of our partners," Haniya joked.
The owners of the mall are well-known for running the "Mazaj" chain, a group of upscale coffee, desert and spice shops in Gaza City. They have no connection to Hamas, though the group will certainly benefit from increased tax revenues generated by the mall.
The mall is banking on Gaza's tiny middle class to stay in business. The Palestinian Authority continues to pay salaries to tens of thousands of former civil servants who have not worked for the past decade. Others include those who work for international aid groups or the United Nations, as well as some senior Hamas employees.
A small number of businessmen have also managed to profit from the consumer sector. As Israel allows in mostly consumer products, businessmen compete on how to best attract buyers, opening lavish supermarkets. A recently opened meat and vegetable shop offers smoked salmon and caviar as well as fresh and frozen fish.
On the other hand, restrictions on the delivery of raw materials and severe power shortages have kept most of Gaza's factories closed.
"We are talking about a full, large trend by Gaza businessmen to get away from industry into consuming," said Mohammed Abu Jayyab, editor-in-chief of Gaza's economic newspaper Al-Eqtesadia. The Capital Mall, and a handful of smaller outdoor shopping centers, "are an expression of a crisis in the industrial and productive investment sector."
On a recent day, families passed by the glitzy stores at the Capital Mall. A group of women sat at a cafe while their children shopped or ran about.
"We hope there will be something bigger than this in the future, similar to what we see in other countries," said Ibtessam Awaja, a mother in her 50s, who has traveled to Saudi Arabia for the Islamic Hajj pilgrimage, as well as Egypt and Jordan.
Construction on the mall began in 2012 - two years before a devastating war with Israel - when movement in and out of Gaza was better.
Haniya said his mall has been full most of the time since it opened. But he fears that many people are coming just to look, and the number of visitors seems to be dwindling.
"When we started building the mall four years ago, we were expecting that the situation would go in a better direction, but things have not improved," he said. "We hope the coming days will be better.''