GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – When nightfall descends upon Gaza, the glittering lights of the Level Up restaurant seem to be the only bright spot in this darkened city.
In a territory plagued by chronic power outages, poverty and shortages of construction materials, the restaurant defies all the rules: It's well lit, thanks to a humming generator. The tables are crowded and hard to come by, and it is one of the few places in Gaza to rebound and relax.
"People want to believe that they should live their lives," said Basil Eleiwa, the manager of the restaurant. "People seem to like this place."
The story of Level Up is in many ways the story of Gaza. It's located in a high-rise complex that symbolized the short-lived hopes for prosperity in the crowded seaside territory two decades ago. It has been impacted by the rule of the Hamas militant group, experienced the horrors of war, yet somehow manages to plod along in difficult circumstances.
The restaurant opened just days before last year's war with Israel broke out on July 8. At first, it suffered only minor damage. But about three weeks into the fighting, owner Mohammed Abu Mathkour says he received a phone call from the Israeli army.
An Israeli intelligence officer told him that Hamas maintained a communications antenna on the roof of the building and that he had several hours to take it down.
"I told them I cannot take it down without permission from the Hamas Interior Ministry," he explained. Knowing what lay ahead, he rushed home to avoid the likely Israeli attack. The next day, Israeli tank shells hit the upper floors of the building. Level Up's kitchen was severely damaged.
The Israeli officer called him back, and Abu Mathkour says they had the same argument about the antenna. The 56-year-old, who worked as a construction worker in Israel as a youth, vowed to rebuild the damage.
"You destroy. I rebuild," he says he told the officer on the phone. "That's what I was born to do."
In the following days, the building absorbed two more rounds of shelling, Abu Mathkour said. During a temporary cease-fire, he visited the site to inspect the damage. The restaurant was flooded and covered in dust. Chairs and tables were broken, and so was most of the glassware.
When the Israeli officer called again, Abu Mathkour says he told him: "I promise you to open it 10 days after the war stops."
Israel considers Hamas, an Islamic militant group committed to its destruction, a terrorist group. Since Hamas seized control of Gaza from the forces of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007, Israel and Hamas have fought three wars, including the devastating 50-day fighting last summer that killed about 2,200 Gazans, including hundreds of civilians, and 73 people on the Israeli side. Thousands of buildings in Gaza were damaged or destroyed.
The Israeli military said the strikes on the Level Up building were being reviewed. A military official said the building had been a "hub of terror activity," but did not elaborate. The official spoke on condition of anonymity under military protocol.
Abu Mathkour denies the allegations. Owner of one of the largest construction firms in Gaza, he says he began making repairs before the war ended. Whenever there was a lull in fighting, his workers mixed cement in the basement of the building and sent it to the roof in buckets to rebuild the walls.
The war ended on Aug. 26, and Level Up reopened on Sept. 10.
These days, reservations must be made well ahead of time to get a table, especially in the evenings. The cafe and restaurant are packed with people, as customers dine and smoke flavored tobacco from bubbling water pipes.
"The place is new. We see the sea from here and see all Gaza. It's open, not dark," said Sami Abu Haloub, a 34-year-old engineer who sat with his friends sipping hot drinks and smoking.
Abu Mathkour believes he kept his promise to the Israeli officer, not only by repairing the damage, but by expanding the business with a fancy dining room built on the roof. In addition to drawing more customers, the rooftop project had another benefit: Hamas agreed to remove its antenna to make way.
Level Up is located in one of a string of 15 high-rise buildings that Abu Mathkour's Zafer Company has built since 1993. At the time that construction began, Israel and the Palestinians were signing a preliminary peace accord, and the future of Gaza seemed bright.
Abu Mathkour began work on building 9, where Level Up is located, in 2002 and it was meant be the first glass-walled tower in Gaza.
Construction was completed two years later. But the death of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in late 2004 delayed its grand opening.
It was the first of many delays. In 2006, Palestinian militants captured an Israeli soldier, prompting an Israeli military offensive that damaged the facade of the still-unoccupied building. Israeli airstrikes periodically targeted a security compound nearby.
Hamas won parliamentary elections in 2006, then violently seized control of Gaza from President Mahmoud Abbas' forces. The building's facade was damaged again, this time by Palestinian fire.
The takeover was followed by an Israeli and Egyptian blockade, and three wars with Israel. The blockade has pushed Gaza's economy into recession, and the building's office space has never been rented.
"This is the nature of my work. They destroy and I build," Abu Mathkour said. His next big project is to open a rotating rooftop restaurant. "This is, if there isn't another war in the next two years," he said.