As the Israeli blockade eases, Gaza goes shopping

The newest mall in Gaza City is filled with goods imported from Israel, not smuggled in through tunnels from Egypt. Donald Macintyre reports

Hila Abdul Wahad, a new graduate in commercial accounting from the Islamic University, was enthusiastic as she window-shopped her way round the eight new stores on the second floor of the shopping mall. "It's great that this is happening in the situation we're in," she said. "We should be proud. It feels that we are outside of Gaza, it's like ... [she paused briefly] ... being in Egypt."

Ms Wahad, 21, had only bought a £2 family sized stick of deodorant - which she said would have cost her £2.50 elsewhere - but admitted that she had an ulterior motive. "I've really come to ask the management for a job," she said.

Ms Wahad was among the 3,700 visitors who flocked to Gaza's first shopping mall in the eight hours after its televised grand opening, attended by the Labour Minister in the Hamas de facto government, Abu Osama al-Kurd. The Gaza Mall is small – just two floors, with a supermarket and fast food restaurant at ground level – but air conditioned. It has no lift – as yet – but above the staircase, a screen displays real-time images of shoppers from the closed-circuit security television cameras.

The stores on the floor include a pharmacy and one selling women's clothes including black abayas for the more traditional dressers that abound in Gaza. The carrier bags in each carry the same logo; and all 60 sales assistants are employed directly by the mall's owners. The mall has its own website offering home delivery. Separate quiet rooms have been included for men and women to pray.

"We want people to come here and find all kinds of products in the same building," says Hassan Nissar, the finance director of the Gaza Shopping Centre company, which owns the mall. "We are working hard to improve lives and let happiness enter the hearts of people. We want them to go to a shopping centre for a trip."

The mall has electrified the conservative blogosphere, now seething with claims that it makes a mockery of the idea that its residents are suffering from the blockade which Israel imposed on the territory three years ago and last month decided to partially ease.

But in fact the shops are selling much the same wares that have long been available in other stores and at a lower price, an important plus when unemployment has been running above 40 per cent and over 60 percent live below a poverty line of $2 per day.

The difference is that most consumer goods were previously smuggled through the tunnels from Egypt – whereas the mall's managers say 90 percent of its new stock is imported from Israel.

According to Ms Wahad, jeans going at 80 shekels [£13.50] in the mall compare with ones for 150 elsewhere. Another shopper, Lemis Baroud, 30, visiting the store with a friend, said: "We came to see how it is. The prices are good. When I first came, I thought a new mall would be expensive but it is cheaper."

Meanwhile, the children's clothes store is well stocked with Chinese-made girls dresses imported by the Taha family. Ibrahim Taha, 20, in the store to train the freshly recruited sales assistants, said that the stock, now coming through the Israeli crossing at Kerem Shalom would be slightly cheaper than in his own longer-established store elsewhere in Gaza City.

There is a widespread assumption in Gaza that Hamas, its de facto government, or at least businessmen close to the Islamic faction, are behind the venture, though Hamas denies it. In the mall's administration office, Sarraj Abu Sleem, one of the investors in the business, insisted: "The government supports this economic project but the only help it has given us has been to grant us a licence."

Mr Abu Sleem, who declined to name his fellow investors, said that the mall cost $1.5m to construct.

Echoing traders and employees in the mall itself, one prominent Gaza business figure who declined to be named because of the political sensitivity said he believed that the Islamic faction was indeed behind the mall.

He suggested it was part of a new wave of businesses, mainly in retail and leisure services which show a quicker return than manufacturing, that had been started by the regime with the help of the tunnels economy that has flourished since the blockade decimated legitimate industry.

These range from the openly Hamas-owned Asdar Media Centre, which combines film production with a livestock farm, to the Crazy Water Aqua Fun Park for children, one of whose directors is believed to be Mohammed Al-Araj, the economics minister in the first government after Hamas won the elections in 2006.

Al Bustan, another leisure complex on the beach north of Gaza city, including one of the most affordable restaurants along the coast, was also opened at a ceremony attended by, among others, the Hamas Interior Minister, Fathi Hamad, and a group of prominent elected Hamas members of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

One unconfirmed theory is that the faction may be using some of the revenues as a source of funds given that Egypt's prohibition on senior Hamas figures leaving Gaza has made it more difficult for the faction to bring ready cash across the border. "They don't want to admit who is behind these operations," the business leader said, "because whatever political change there is in the future, they don't want to be uprooted."

Meanwhile, longer-established manufacturing industry in Gaza is struggling to make the most of the easing of the embargo by bringing limited parts of Gaza's productive economy flickering back to life.

Cement and other construction materials – except, gradually, for selected and internationally supervised construction projects – are still prohibited. But though most new imports from Israel are ready-made consumer goods, some timber, fabrics, thread, industrial cocoa, packaging, along with glass, metal and plastic containers have entered through the Kerem Shalom crossing in recent days. (A few long delayed individual items for a health service seriously undermined by the three year embargo, including a CT scanner, have recently entered Gaza. However, the World Health Organisatio reports that many others are still facing long bureaucratic delays, along with its urgent requests for medical technicians to go out of Gaza for training or to enter to install and maintain equipment)

According to Gisha, an Israeli human rights agency, the number of truckloads entering Gaza has risen from 25 per cent of pre-June 2007 levels to – last week – 40 percent.

Israel has promised to increase the capacity of Kerem Shalom from 180 to 250 trucks a day, but to reach the 100 per cent level would require a major crossing like the biggest for cargo, Karni, to be fully open.

And even that 100 percent would not meet the huge backlog of construction and raw materials needed after a siege and a devastating war. Since June 2007, Gaza crossings have been closed to all exports and all imports, bar essential humanitarian goods. While the ban on imports has been partially eased, that on exports, which accounted for a high proportion of Gaza's manufacturing output, is still in force.

"Without a substantial increase in the capacity of the crossings, well beyond what Israel is promising, and without export, there will be no economic recovery," said Gisha's director, Sari Bashi.

Two companies in Gaza that used to rely 100 per cent on exports are a case in point. The Gaza Juice Factory is now on a two-day week because its embargo-caused reliance on the domestic market has been undermined by the arrival of Israeli juice among other consumer goods now flowing into Gaza.

But the Aziz factory – one of hundreds of clothing manufacturers that have closed down in Gaza – which until June 2007 was employing 100 workers making jeans for an Israeli importer has now imported enough fabric for modest production of jeans and T-shirts for the Gaza market with seven rehired employees.

Determinedly optimistic, Aziz Aziz said: "If things go on like this, I hope we can go back to where we were before"

Back at the Gaza mall, Ibrahim Taha insists that if he could buy his children's clothes from Gaza manufacturers, he would switch away from Chinese imports.

Amr Hamad, the director of the Palestinian Federation of Industries, last week explicitly welcomed Israel's undoubted change of policy, but estimated that only a few hundred of Gaza's 3,900 pre-siege factories and workshops will be able to start up again under present conditions. Which is one reason that the international community envoy Tony Blair is still pressing Israel to lift the export ban.

It may still be too early to evaluate the change fully. But Sami Abdel-Shafi, an independent business consultant, warned that "whatever goods appear in Gaza, people's lives will continue to be short-circuited for as long as they are unable to move freely or rebuild an economy which produced export-quality goods and employed hundreds of thousands of people who then became beggars for aid."

Even a bright new shopping mall cannot change that reality.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Life and Style
Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on an aircraft by G4S escorts
voicesJonathan Cox: Tragedy of Jimmy Mubenga highlights lack of dignity shown to migrants
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
Not quite what they were expecting

When teaching the meaning of Christmas backfires

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum