The opening of a new American-style, three-storey mall could well change Palestinian shopping patterns and is already a success for hundreds of families who appreciate the supermarket, food court and children play area all "under one roof."
The offering of fish, meat, fruits and vegetables, dairy and canned products in one single supermarket was unheard of until a month ago and soon the Plaza Shopping Centre will feature 40 retail stores all leased by local companies.
"I love it that we don't have to run around to different shops any more and can find everything we need here," says Abdelatif Najaf, 25, as he pushes a full cart.
"The prices are great, the choice extensive and it's so spacious!" says Sahar, 32, as her girlfriend Fida, 30, nods in approval.
"But I'm afraid they'll increase prices once they've gained our loyalty," she adds.
"I'm glad malls made it to Palestine."
The mall's general manager, Sam Bahour, says such strategy "is not part of the plan".
"At any rate, people should shop as much as they can without worrying because they're buying at prices at or below market-level," says the US-born businessman.
Within weeks, shoppers will get preferred customer cards with rewards and free give-aways.
Bahour is confident the 10.2-million-dollar venture will be profitable. "We've already hit the budgeted daily target for 2003 with more than 900 transactions although we're still in the soft opening mode," he explains.
With each purchase, customers get a feedback form and Bahour religiously studies patrons' criticism and suggestions each and every day.
"Comments are very positive. It was all worth it," he smiles.
But the 39-year-old father of three who arrived in Ramallah in 1995 "to contribute to Palestinian development" has not always had it that easy over the past 34 months of intifada.
The mall, mainly financed by the Ramallah-based Arab Palestinian Investment Company (APIC), was slated to open 20 months ago. "Every time the economy was declining further, I had to convince the board not to give up," he says.
There are plans to build three
more malls in the West Bank and
one in Gaza City
The project was conceived before the Palestinian uprising and the 9,000 square metre complex took four years to build instead of 18 months owing to Israel's clampdown on people and goods' freedom of movement.
"When the building material was finally on site, the workers couldn't get here and then it was the other way around for months on end," remembers Bahour.
But that is all in the past and he is looking forward to the challenge of opening another three shopping malls in the West Bank and one in Gaza City, although not in the immediate future.
"The real challenge right now is to reach full operation here," he says.
The first mall will serve as a pilot project and its location in the relatively affluent Ramallah/Al-Bireh district was no coincidence.
"The community is more cosmopolitan and diverse here and although the Palestinian economy was hard-hit, the local purchasing power was less affected," the savvy businessman says.
He also counts on the dismantlement of additional Israeli checkpoints in the Ramallah area – two were taken apart last week and the Plaza had its best sales day so far – so that neighboring villagers can access the mall.
"People have been confined at home for too long. They're thirsty for entertainment in a family-oriented environment, in line with the local culture," he explains.
Lina Suhweil and her two children could not agree more. "It's great. I find everything I want here and the kids very much enjoy the play area on the top floor," she says.
Nadia Karam, a 25-year-old Palestinian American, is watching her son Omar driving a bumper car. "It's small compared to what we have in America, but quality wise it's totally fine. I'm glad malls made it to Palestine," she says.