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A 'prison camp' with a mall Add to ...

There's no getting around it: Life in Gaza appears better than it has for years. The major centres, especially Gaza City, are being kept clean, the stores have an abundance of products (and this is before the benefit of Israel's policy of allowing more goods into the blockaded territory has had much effect) and the coastline is full of makeshift beach cafés and thousands of swimmers.

Topping it all was the opening this month of Gaza's first mall.

The "Gaza Mall" sounds like an oxymoron. How could one of the world's great hardship cases, where flotillas of ships are fighting their way to deliver humanitarian supplies, be home to a shopping mall?

First of all, it isn't much of a mall. The first two floors of an eight-storey office building have been converted to house eight shops, a grocery store and a fried-chicken fast-food restaurant.

People seem happy enough to come inside from the heat - and a group of women said they liked how clean the place is - but apart from the grocery store, there didn't seem to be many purchases being made.

Women said that stores elsewhere had better selections of clothes than the two clothing shops in the mall, and while people seemed to relish the grocery store's western style (large display aisles and shopping carts) those big shelves are filled with a small variety of products. One entire side of an aisle showed only three laundry detergents - hundreds of boxes of the same three things.

Second, Gaza has never been the basket case some people make it out to be. A combination of people's enterprise in constructing hundreds of tunnels to Egypt, food aid from the United Nations Relief Works Agency and the territory's own farmers has made sure no one starved.

What the place lacks is a vibrant economy and full employment, two things that would flow from an opening of the borders to Israel and Egypt, freedom to use Gaza's small seaport, and the right to use the airport that once upon a time had been built here.

That's why people such as British Prime Minister David Cameron call this place a "prison camp." Though now, it's a prison camp with a mall.

There's been another change in Gaza; this one is not to everyone's liking. The Hamas government last week announced that women now are forbidden in public to smoke nargila, the aromatic tobacco water pipes, popularly known here as hubbly-bubblies.

Nargilas have been a fixture for centuries in Gaza coffee shops and just about anywhere people gather to sit and talk.

At some point in the past half-century women joined in the smoking. No more.

According to a Hamas police spokesman, Ayman Batniji, the continued practice would lead to a high rate of divorce. Men, he said, would leave their wives if they were seen smoking the pipes in public.

In a similar vein, Hamas security this week issued new orders to the territory's lingerie shops: No scantily clad mannequins can be on display in the shop windows, and no risqué pictures of women can be displayed anywhere in the shops. The penalty for either violation is a hefty fine.

However, a stroll through some shops this week uncovered several stores flouting the new edict, by keeping revealing pictures of women in underwear at the rear of the shops. "I don't expect the police will come this far into the store," said one shop owner. "They'll be too shy."

Another example of Gaza's new look was surprisingly visible this week in Gaza City, as Prime Minister Ismail Haniya could be seen at sunset taking a power walk on the road that runs along the beachfront. Dressed all in black, with black sport shoes, the grey-haired Hamas leader kept a brisk pace, with his hands pumping high, while half a dozen security men (their weapons out of view) tried to keep up with him.

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