GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Palestinians in this blockaded territory can now buy $80 bottles of perfume, Turkish-made suits and Israeli yogurt at the new Gaza Mall. But with only two floors of shops connected by a broken elevator and a staircase, Gaza's first shopping center is a far cry from the sprawling luxury malls famous elsewhere in the Middle East.
Nevertheless, for the war-battered residents of the impoverished coastal strip, it is a symbol of pride and normalcy. But the mall has become more than just a modest attempt at a shopper's paradise. Since its opening last month, it has become the focus of an argument over how bad things really are in Gaza.
Israel has pointed to photos of the mall's toy displays, supermarket and racks of clothes as proof that Gazan suffering has been exaggerated, amid claims of a humanitarian crisis and a crippling lack of building materials because of an Egyptian-Israeli blockade of the territory.
"This clearly belies all the moaning about the human catastrophe in Gaza," said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor.
Occupying the first two floors of an existing Gaza office tower, the shopping center features a fried chicken restaurant — now closed during the day for the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan — and a supermarket on the ground floor. The upstairs has a toy store, a perfume and accessories shop and clothing stores.
If they have the cash, shoppers can now buy Pringles chips, Israeli yogurt, Turkish-made suits and $80 bottles of perfume. But Gazans maintain that the mall doesn't change the fact that the coastal strip sufferes from rampant unemployment, poor utilities and the border closures that keep people locked in.
"People say there are no problems because Gaza has mayonnaise and ketchup," said Gaza dentist Samir Ziara, 59, while browsing the mall's supermarket. "If you lock someone in a room but take care of all of his basic needs, is that enough to make him happy?"
Local media heavily reported the mall's festive opening last month. Hamas Social Affairs Minister Ahmed al-Kurd cut the ribbon. Other Hamas officials also attended, though Hamas and mall administrators denied any official connection.
Many Israelis, however, took the news as proof that life in Gaza wasn't as bad as Palestinians, media outlets and the United Nations often claim.
"Images from the new mall make one wonder about the humanitarian crisis all these international 'aid' ships are sailing to," wrote Jacob Shrybman on the Ynet Israeli news website.
Similarly, Israel's Government Press Office sent a sarcastic e-mail to foreign correspondents in May suggesting that while they cover "alleged humanitarian difficulties" in Gaza they also visit a recently opened Olympic-size swimming pool and the Roots Club, a luxury restaurant. "We have been told the beef stroganoff and cream of spinach soup are highly recommended," read the e-mail.
Mall manager Saladin Abu Abdu brushed off the criticisms and played down the mall's importance.
"It has no excess or luxury," he said. "The only thing special here is that we collect everything under one roof. That's what you can't find elsewhere."
The economy in the impoverished territory has been in decline since Hamas militants overran the strip in 2007 and Israel and Egypt responded with a strict blockade. Most of Gaza's merchandise was then smuggled in through tunnels under the Egyptian border.
Then a deadly Israeli raid on a flotilla seeking to break the blockade in May drew widespread international criticism, and Israel loosened restrictions on consumer goods — many of which can now be bought at the new mall.
Mall administrators, however, say about 80 percent of the goods on the shelves are still coming through the smuggling tunnels.
The shopping center has its own generator, exempting it from the frequent power outages in most Gaza homes and is also air conditioned, although a recent visitor found the interior only slightly less stifling than the sticky, Mediterranean heat outside.
Pushing a cart piled high with glassware, diapers, toilet paper, shampoo, chocolate, a food processor and a dish rack, Osama Saleh, 35, said Gaza now had more goods than he'd seen before.
"They are easing the blockade a bit, but the crisis is more than that," he said, adding that few Gazans had the cash to shop like him. "The unemployment here is unbelievable."
About one-third of Gaza's work force is currently jobless, and 80 percent of the population depends on food aid. While consumer goods enter, Israel still bans exports and many raw materials that could allow Gaza's factories to reopen.
Israel says those problems are due to the refusal of Hamas — whose charter calls for Israel's destruction — to engage with the Jewish state.
"It's something new and nice," said Ziara, the dentist, pushing a cart holding Israeli yogurt, a bucket of laundry detergent, a hunk of cheese and a bottle of corn oil.
Ziara said his practice affords him a comfortable life but that being stuck in Gaza is emotionally taxing. He can't visit his two brothers who live in Saudi Arabia, he said, and hasn't seen his 22-year-old son since he left to study in France three years ago.
"It's pretty small for a mall," said Saleh, who was born in Gaza, but having lived for 18 years in Miami, Fla. had seen bigger. "I'm used to the huge ones, but by Gaza standards it's nice."