Tuesday, September 23, 2003

AL BIREH, West Bank — Green, red, black and white tags that read “Made in Palestine” adorn the supermarket shelves at the Plaza Shopping Center. In the food court, cashiers with baseball caps serve greasy hamburgers. At a games arcade, children fork over 20 cents to ride a miniature train.

It may be a far cry from Tysons Corner, but the first Palestinian shopping mall and supermarket in this Ramallah suburb is a novelty for locals. The 21,500-square-foot supermarket — five times the size of the largest grocery store in the West Bank — swallows the sparse weekday afternoon crowd in a sea of products.

“You can find anything you need,” Faisal Nabhan said while wheeling two daughters in a shopping cart up and down the aisles. “It’s nice to do most of your shopping in one place.”

The $10.2 million complex is a patch of Western consumerism that has sprouted slowly but stubbornly through three years of war and instability. The fact that the mall is completed at all is something of a marvel of business perseverance.

Construction began four years ago when momentum toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement seemed unstoppable. But for the last three years, daily fighting has emasculated the Palestinian economy. Israeli security roadblocks that ring West Bank cities choke traffic, slowing shipping to a snail’s pace and turning daily commutes into a ordeal.

The hassles forced shopping mall General Manager Sam Bahour to revisit and revise his business plan more than once. Plans to include a multiplex movie theater were scrapped. Expensive building materials were cut from the budget.

“Our project was built without a road map,” said the Youngstown, Ohio, native who managed the building project for Arab Palestinian Shopping Centers. “This was built in the middle of crisis. Anything that could go wrong did go wrong.”

Like many children of the Palestinian diaspora in the United States, Mr. Bahour returned to the Palestinian territories in the heyday of the optimism of the Oslo peace process with hopes of laying the economic foundations of an independent state. He is one of the few who have remained through the hardship of closures and curfews.

With the mall construction site alongside two major flash points, Mr. Bahour and his builders often were caught in the cross fire. Four months before the mall opened, Israeli soldiers used the nearly finished supermarket as a holding area for Palestinian fugitives they had captured.

“We inhaled a lot of tear gas as we built this project,” he said. “Several times we had to evacuate the building because the shooting became too close.”

The greatest impediments were Israel’s military roadblocks throughout the West Bank. Construction materials often would arrive without any builders.

The mall’s construction crew came from Hebron, a West Bank city 25 miles and a few army checkpoints to the south. Mr. Bahour’s solution was to rent an apartment in Ramallah so the workers wouldn’t have to travel every day.

The mall opened last month during the final weeks of a brief break in Israeli-Palestinian violence — a fortuitous business omen even if it was finished two years behind schedule.

The parking lot overflowed. Parents watched their children frolic in the game arcade decorated with smiling fish. The “Sea World” theme for the recreation area got the nod over the combat soldier proposal.

But the ray of optimism was dimmed when a cease-fire of Palestinian militants was called off and the Israeli army reinstated roadblocks that had been dismantled to support the “road map” process.

With the unemployment rate at more than 50 percent in Palestinian areas and the purchasing power of consumers decimated, the prospects for the mall seem shaky.

“Investments require stability,” said Youssef Daoud, an economics professor at Bir Zeit University. “Hopefully when we have an independent state there will be more capital and more stability,” he said while shopping in the supermarket.

Mr. Bahour knows what he is facing. Behind his desk, a piece of paper taped to the wall reads, “Build for Eternity and be ready to move in 24 Hours.” Every Israeli roadblock around Ramallah that is removed means more business.

Despite the bleak outlook for peace, Mr. Bahour is looking to be the first to build supermarkets in Palestinian cities. The fact that real estate prices haven’t collapsed in the West Bank suggests that other investors share his optimism.

Yet Mr. Bahour knows that the mall’s success is in large part out of his hands. If “high intensity” fighting erupts, the mall will survive — but only for a year.

“We understand there’s a political risk around us that we don’t have any control of,” he said. “So I won’t tell you like other Palestinians that we’re supermen and we can master any type of situation. We can’t.”

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