“So did you see the malls?” That was one of the first questions an Israeli asked me, half-an-hour or so after leaving Gaza, as I sat having coffee in the service station near Yad Mordechai last week.
Ah, the Gaza malls. That phenomenon beloved of right-wing bloggers and the hasbara machine, who like to report glitzy openings in the beleaguered Gaza Strip, beach volleyball matches and shops bursting with fine foods. According to this trope, Gaza is more akin to a seaside holiday camp than a vast open-air prison.
I was sorry to disappoint my questioner. Obviously, I didn’t see the most famous - or rather notorious mall – the one the Israel Defense Forces used as to illustrate a blog post (which was then quickly edited) from last August which sneered at the supposed humanitarian crisis in Gaza. That one was actually in Kuala Lumpur.
But I could reassure him that I had indeed met people with iPhones, Galaxy tablets, and wearing branded clothing. I even visited a beauty salon-cum-gym, where women could grab a haircut, a mani-pedi, work out on exercise machines or attend an aerobics class.
And I spent a night in one of the fanciest hotels in Gaza, where the restaurant served fillet steak with cream sauce at Tel Aviv prices, and a whole roast lamb with rice and an array of trimmings could be pre-ordered for a hefty NIS 2,600 ($740).
So what is the significance of all these apparent riches in such an unlikely setting? The answer is simple: absolutely none.
In any impoverished country around the world, any war zone, amid any humanitarian crisis, these pockets of luxury can and will be found. Western journalists like to sleep at night between crisp sheets, especially if they’re on expenses (I certainly do); there are always powerbrokers with the money to buy fancy cars for themselves and plush toys for their children, regardless of the situation outside their privileged orbit.
But the only constituencies these fancy hotels and lavishly-stocked supermarkets serve are a tiny elite minority who can afford them – oh, and in Gaza’s case, the hasbara trolls.
For most of its 1.7 million people inhabitants, life is utterly different. Seventy percent of them rely on humanitarian aid; at least a third are unemployed. The last six months, following the military coup in Egypt, have been particularly grueling. Cairo has closed the smuggling tunnels which Gaza’s economy depended on, and prices have soared in response.
In the center of Gaza city, vendors still sell candy floss and sesame bread rings from carts, but there are few shoppers in the markets. Stallholders say – quietly – that business is awful.
Fuel for generators – a necessity if you want to use more than the few hours of electricity provided each day – costs double what it used to. The Israeli goods that are available are of far better quality than most of the cheap items that used to be sourced from Egypt, but prices are much higher.
Jobs are scarce; those connected with the ruling Hamas government have first crack at what resources are available. So who can afford them?
There are half-completed houses and apartment blocks everywhere in Gaza City, but no-one is working on them. Israel stopped the transfer of construction materials after discovering a huge tunnel snaking under the border last October (although even by the IDF’s own estimates the tunnel was completed a month before Israel began allowing imports of cement for the private sector).
It’s perhaps asking too much of the average Israeli to feel overwhelmed by sympathy for those locked away in Gaza, even though they languish so very, very close to them. The Hamas government which rules the Strip, after all, is committed to Israel’s annihilation, and those within firing range of the Strip have suffered their fair share of fear and destruction.
But this phenomenon of insisting that life is just swell in Gaza, that all their issues would be solved if they spent more on kindergartens and less on Qassams, is an ugly one.
To base this theory on the evidence of the odd luxury boutique is as logical as to conclude that the dress shops I saw featuring seasonal Santa Claus-themed outfits in Gaza indicate both religious freedom and full female emancipation.
It’s easier to stick to the narrative of Gaza’s wealthy and plenty because it’s dangerous to allow nuance to creep into to such an emotive issue. If you allow nuance, then one might have to also allow the possibility of compassion and perhaps accountability.
Israel still has substantial control over the Gaza Strip; under international law (which, to be fair, is generally ignored by most who can) Israel bears the responsibility for allowing people to live a normal life there.
Current policy, at least, is a non-solution. If Israel thinks it can drive the Gazans to the point of overthrowing Hamas, they are playing a dangerous game. Human rights workers and Facebook activists don’t tend to engage in violent struggle; what would come after Hamas could be much worse.
In this, Israelis and Gazans are united (together with Hamas, for that matter) – a jihadist take-over of Gaza is their worst nightmare.
Privately, many Gazans curse all sides – Hamas, the international community, Israel. They say the Arab world treats Gazans like they are diseased, and talk of their hopes to escape – not just to Canada or Germany. There were good opportunities to be had in Sudan, I was told, if only you could get there.
Young businessmen showed me sheaves of visas, stamped and in order, but which had not served to allow them to travel.
So I didn’t see the Gaza malls. But it’s the thwarted ambition there that chokes you; the poverty and what’s worse, despair. Both Israel and Palestine will end up paying a high-price for these bottled-up and frustrated lives.
Daniella Peled is editor of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and has written widely from across the Middle East and Afghanistan.