Notorious Al-Saraya becomes holiday-time mall

Where Gaza’s rulers once presided and the location of a notorious political prison, merchants set up shop in tents for Id Al-Adha.

Palestinian flags, mosque_311 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Palestinian flags, mosque_311
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
The Al-Saraya compound has been at the center of life in the Gaza Strip for nearly a century, mostly as the headquarters for whoever was in power, a prison for those who opposed them and occasionally as a military target. Now, the place where generals, government officials and warders once worked has been turned into a canvas-covered shoppers’ paradise for the Id Al-Adha holiday.
The Karaz Foundation worked with the National Union of Youth Bodies to take over the huge empty space at the center of Gaza City and lease to merchants nine-square-meter (100 square feet) tents for the equivalent for about $270 for 10 days. Families get a new and interesting place to shop and meet friends during the holiday while the economy gets some badly needed jobs.
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Some 350 bright blue tents are spread out over some 42,000 sandy square meters, a foretaste of what the site eventually house, namely a concrete and steel shopping mall and cultural center,
“It’s a great, huge opportunity for all Gazans, whether they’re merchants or shoppers or visitors. This land should have been developed a long time ago,” Khaled Darwish, a 26-year-old Gazan, told The Media Line. “I also can’t wait to see the huge mall and cultural center, [but] that will take place in a few years.”
The idea of creating a consumer event in the Gaza Strip would have been unthinkable just a year or two ago. Under a blockade by Israel since the Islamic movement Hamas seized control of the tiny Mediterranean seaside enclave in 2007, Gaza has been battered by a sagging economy, double-digit unemployment and frequent fighting with Israel, most significantly almost two years ago when some 1,400 Gazans were killed in Israel’s Cast Lead offensive.
The tensions with Israel continue – an exchange of rocket fire by Gaza militants and Israeli retaliation last month left at least 10 Gazans dead – but the blockade has been eased considerably in the past 18 months and Egypt has opened its border. Gaza’s economy is reviving.  Albeit, from a very low baseline, gross domestic product grew 28% in the first half of the year, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Al-Saraya was built more than 80 years ago by the British when they ruled what are today Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as a local headquarters and prison. In 1948, after the British evacuated, Egypt took control of Gaza and turned the compound into its local military headquarters. Nineteen years later, it was Israel’s turn to use Al-Saraya when it won control of Gaza as well as the West Bank during the 1967 Six Day War.
In 1995, the Palestinian Authority took over the compound in the wake of the Oslo peace accords and used it as its Gaza headquarters as well as the home for Yassir Arafat’s multiple security forces. When Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007, it followed precedent and converted Al-Saraya to its head office and central prison.
Over the decades of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Al-Saraya also served as a target for military attacks. It survived them all until Cast Lead, when Israeli warplanes turned the compound into a pile of rubble. Months before that, Yousef Al-Mansi, minister of public works and housing in Gaza’s Hamas government, announced plans to turn the site into a shopping mall, cultural center with parking and public gardens.
"We want to remove Al-Saraya because it has been always a symbol of torture and occupation, and we also want to use the area in the future to develop the Palestinian economy,” Al-Mansi said at the time. Two years ago, the ruins were cleared.
Come the middle of 2011 and Al-Saraya is still a big empty lot. That’s when the Karaz Foundation, a non-governmental organization dedicated to economic development and youth initiatives, got the idea of turning the empty lot into a temporary holiday-time emporium.
Hussam Ahmed, the Karaz foundation’s media coordinator, says the goal of the project is to employ and encourage young people by giving them jobs setting up the tents and selling. Gaza’s youth have been the biggest victims of Gaza’s economic woes, with unemployment among the young more than 40%, compared with about 28% for the overall population, according to the IMF.
“We saw that we can kill many birds with one stone. This project will support the local products, provide work opportunities for unemployed youth, strengthen local merchants and shed a light on Gaza’s civilized side,” Ahmed explains.
Hamdi Mahmoud Abu Sa’di, who rented a tent in the temporary mall to sell his fabrics, says it the project is giving small-business people like him a badly needed shot in the arm. “We need more projects like this that help local merchants and let local trading businesses flourish,” he says.
But not everyone is so enthusiastic. Khaled Al-Mastooh, a 22-year-old university student, expresses anger and resentment over the tent-shopping festival. “Why would I go shopping in tents when I can easily go to a store?” he told The Media Line. “These tents aren’t displaying any new products, so why bother? I won’t waste my time into visiting something crowded just to see things I have already seen and bought.”
He says the Hamas government would be helping the local economy more by getting started on developing the permanent shopping mall rather than creating 80 jobs for the 10 days that the tent market is operating.
.”If it would have been done now, it would have offered hundreds of new unemployment opportunities for Gazan youth,” Mastooh says. “I hope to see the big project started soon and not be unpleasantly surprised to find out that in the end it was nothing more than an idea.”