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Palestinians Flock to New Shopping Mall

August 9, 2003

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) _ Tugging impatiently at his mother’s shirt, 5-year-old Rami Tubasi had only one thing on his mind: a few more laps around the go-cart track.

Sawsan Tubasi, 30, was happy to hand over two shekels to give her son another ride.

With its glossy new supermarket, food court, amusement arcades and entertainment center, the West Bank’s first American-style shopping mall is a magnet for weary Palestinians yearning for a normal life after years of violence.

``We don’t have anything like this,″ Sawsan Tubasi said Saturday. ``It’s safe, convenient, and it’s also affordable.″

The gleaming new Plaza mall is a sign of hope _ and a big business risk _ in Ramallah, the West Bank’s commercial center and the Palestinians’ administrative base,

The violence-scarred city has little to offer families in terms of entertainment. Few parks dot its landscape, and repeated Israeli incursions over the past three years of violence have done millions of dollars in damage, discouraged investors and taken an emotional toll on the people.

Israeli troops still maintain checkpoints throughout the West Bank and regularly enter Palestinian towns in search of wanted militants.

But with a six-week-old cease-fire by Palestinian militants and a U.S.-backed peace plan bringing a relative respite from violence for Palestinians and Israelis alike, the new mall has proved a hit.

``We’ve been here six times already,″ said 29-year-old pharmacist Khaled Nazer, grappling with the steering wheel of a race-car arcade game as his 2-year-old daughter wriggled in his lap. ``I think I come here for myself as much as I come here for my kid.″

The play area _ complete with go-cart track, a mini train, miniature bowling, basketball hoops, an array of arcades and a small theater where cartoons run all day _ is by far the mall’s biggest attraction.

There’s also a spacious modern supermarket with local and American goods, a fish market, a bakery, a produce section, and a butcher. Staffed largely by college and high-school students, the mall has a young and vibrant feel.

General manager Sam Bahour acknowledges the $10 million shopping center is a financial risk. While the U.S.-backed ``road map″ peace plan aims to end violence and establish a Palestinian state by 2005, concrete progress toward that goal has been slow, and violence could erupt again when the militants’ unilateral cease-fire expires in late September.

``The Palestinian business community doesn’t work only based on business,″ said American-born Bahour. ``We have a vested political and national interest to be here.″

Bahour, 39, said the project, which was supposed to take a year and a half to complete, ended up taking five. At times, board members and investors _ a mix of local and foreign-based Palestinian business people _ doubted their project would ever be finished.

Dozens of retail outlets on the plaza’s second floor still await their tenants and are scheduled to open in October. No big American chains have signed up yet, but there will be computer and shoe shops, men’s and women’s clothing stores and an authorized Nike outlet. With backers determined to move ahead and tired of waiting for peace to break out, the mall opened for business in July anyway.

Bahour says the mall, and the hundreds of construction and retail jobs it created, is a way of resisting Israeli military occupation.

``Some people resist by throwing stones, we resist by creating jobs,″ said Bahour. ``And personally I think our way is far more effective.″

Sneaking away from her grandchildren to bowl a few rounds, Grace Ziyadeh, like many in Ramallah, appreciates the new addition to her city. Describing the last years of conflict as suffocating, Ziyadeh said the mall is a breath of fresh air.

``Our city needs places like this,″ she said as she knocked down eight bowling pins. ``It makes one feel like things just might be changing for the better. True or not, it’s a good feeling.″

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