THE FUTURE OF GAZA: FROM CITY UNDER SIEGE TO WORLD TOURISM HUB
Elements of stylish, civilised Gaza have survived its darkest decade. Palestinian businessman Basil Eleiwa believes his city could become a world tourist hub – but are Gaza and its people holding out for a future that will never arrive?
The Guardian, Donald Macintyre in Gaza, 28 Jul 2016, Last modified on Fri 11 May 2018
A Palestinian youth looks at rubble of houses which were damaged during the 50-day Gaza war between Israel and Hamas-led militants
In Gaza, 80% of families rely on humanitarian aid.
Photograph: Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images
As you chat with Basil Eleiwa over a chilled strawberry-and-fresh-lemonade cocktail in his 11th-floor restaurant Level Up, it’s surprisingly easy to believe him when he predicts that his native city could yet become one of the great tourist hubs of the Middle East.
With breathtaking views from its terrace, of the sea to the west and over the city to the north and east, you can understand why it’s become a favourite haunt of the middle class here – whether it’s the young women (many with head coverings, some more daringly without) and men sipping tea and sucking water pipes filled with sweet-flavoured tobacco delivered by a narghila man in a fez, or the families out for an evening treat enjoying caesar salads or pepper steaks brought to their tables by impeccably black-tunicked waiters. It could be a popular hangout in Dubai or Sharm El Sheikh – only classier.
But hang on. This is Gaza. At night, especially when the city is plunged into darkness by the daily power cuts of eight hours or more, you can see the beams of boats fishing off the coast to one side, and the twinkling of lights in Israel on the other – so near and yet so unreachable for the imprisoned vast majority of the city’s 700,000 inhabitants.
At such moments, with its own, generator-powered lights shining out from the top of the Zafer tower, Level Up seems like a beacon of sophistication in a city that has been under siege, and suffered three devastating Israeli military onslaughts, over the nine years since Hamas took control.
The Level Up restaurant advertises itself as a ‘multi-service hospitality complex’.
Photograph: Level Up
Somehow, elements of another Gaza have survived what has been – literally and metaphorically – its darkest decade: stylish, civilised, worthy of a history stretching back five millennia. While few other cities have been more fought over or occupied – by the ancient Egyptians, Romans, Byzantines, Abbasids, Crusaders, Mamluks, Turks, British, Egypt again and Israel – there have also been long periods when Gaza was a centre of culture and learning, as well as a flourishing port and trading centre.
Today, the all too regular TV images of plumes of black smoke soaring from burning, bombed-out buildings obscure its stubborn endurance as not only the biggest but the most metropolitan of Palestinian cities. There are two major universities, internationally exhibited artists, a music school that is part of the Edward Said network of conservatories, some of the region’s best rappers, a few hotels and restaurants as good as any in the Holy Land, and a well-designed museum of treasures from Gaza’s rich past built by Jawdat al Khodari, a fellow Gazan entrepreneur with a passion for archaeology.
But Eleiwa remains an optimist. As a serial owner of fashionable hotels and restaurants in a market imploded by war and economic blockade, what else could he be?
Level Up’s owner comes from an old family of wheat traders who also owned many acres of – now obliterated – orange groves in Beit Hanoun, in the northern Gaza Strip. His career in what he calls the “hospitality and tourism” business started 1991 as a “hobby”, when he was working as a human resources manager and development expert for an international aid agency.
Eleiwa opened a small beach restaurant at a time when it could only open for a few hours because of an Israeli-imposed curfew. “The [first] intifada was still going,” he recalls. “People needed to breathe, to be able to live their lives.”
Sunrise at the port of Gaza
Fishing has traditionally supported the livelihoods of thousands of families across the Gaza Strip. P
Photograph: Mohammed Saber/EPA
A quarter of a century later, he says they still do. Eleiwa opened Level up in 2014, just before the third and bloodiest of the Gaza wars. Three weeks in, the building’s developer, Mohammed Abu Mathkour, was phoned by an Israeli intelligence officer and told to take down a communications antenna that had been installed on the roof by Hamas. Caught between two colliding enemies, Mathkour said he couldn’t do that without the permission of Hamas’s interior ministry.
The day after, Israeli tank shells hit the upper floors of the tower, causing serious damage in the first of two attacks – but not so serious that the restaurant could not be quickly repaired and re-opened after the war ended.
Level Up was an instant success with a clientele that Eleiwa insists is not “elite” but “middle and even lower-middle class”. While many, if not most, Gazans could not afford to eat here, Eleiwa says he keeps his prices as low as possible while making a modest profit. The pepper steak may be £10, but hummus or baba ganoush (a crushed aubergine and tahini salad) and tea cost nine shekels (£1.60).
When Eleiwa recruited his first 20 workers, he had well over 400 applications without even advertising – hardly surprisingly when the World Bank puts Gaza’s unemployment rate at around 40%, among the highest in the world. Monthly Level Up salaries start at around 1,600 shekels (around £280) for a newly recruited cleaner, competitive by Gaza standards, plus progressive fringe benefits.
Now Eleiwa has 32 full-time employees, boasts a “virtually zero” turnover of staff, and – remarkably – is planning a new hotel on the beach here. His first, the once-famous five-star Windmill Hotel, literally went up in flames in October 2000, when Islamist protesters attacked it for allowing guests to drink their own alcohol on the premises.
An apartment building collapses just after it was hit by missiles during an Israeli air strike on the heart of Gaza City
An apartment building collapses after it was hit by missiles during an Israeli air strike on Gaza.
Photograph: Mohammed Othman/AFP/Getty Images
So why would he embark on another – alcohol-free, of course – hotel when bed occupancy in the city is only 20%? “Because it’s my business, and in this line of business, if you excel, if you distinguish yourself based on better service and better quality, you will have your share of the market.”
But beyond this borderline management-speak, Eleiwa has another, more emotional response. “This is my Gaza; I belong to this place. One day Gaza will have its opportunity in this line of business, and I assure you it will compete with the region – because we have the basic factors for this industry to excel: wonderful weather, a wonderful beach, and most of the Gaza people enjoy hospitality by nature.”
“You will go the beach and see the poorest people with their small sandwich and a cup of tea. We love to live our lives”
But even supposing the political circumstances were miraculously transformed, wouldn’t it take forever to restore the city’s infrastructure, clean its coastal waters – heavily polluted with sewage – and market Gaza as the most improbable of all holiday destinations? Isn’t the city’s fate to be continually preparing for a future that never comes?
“Palestinian people have sacrificed a lot throughout the last six decades,” Eleiwa says. “At one point we might get a leadership that will light this candle at the end of the tunnel for us.”
He suggests that, “while not taking Israel out of the picture as the main factor in our misery”, a lack of effective leadership that has left the two main Palestinian factions desperately split is also “a fundamental problem of the Palestinian people”.
Amid all these challenges, Eleiwa is determinedly “working for our future generation” – one which, with 18,000 graduates every year hinting for a handful of jobs, has been left “with no hope … We’re maintaining good service standards that could one day be the basis of our competition with the region and the world.”
And in the mean time, he is ensuring that at least a corner of Gaza’s economy does not go dark. “Even if the business gets worse and I’m still able to pay my suppliers and my staff, that’s more than enough.”
Yet for all their pain, Eleiwa insists enjoyment is embedded in Gazans’ “coastal culture”. Every Friday, he says, “You will go the beach and see the poorest people are there with their small sandwich and a cup of tea. We love to live our lives.”
That last sentence is a conscious echo of a line Eleiwa likes to quote from Mahmoud Darwish, the most famous of all Palestinian poets: “We love life, if we can find a way to it.”
GAZA: A FUTURE TOURIST DESTINATION? Joyce Choong, 9 February 2017
A quick search of Gaza comes up with images of a war-torn city, blazing fires and crumbled buildings. What may come as a surprise however is that tourism in the Palestinian territory is slowly picking up, beginning with tourists from around the region.
Bordering the Mediterranean Sea, the Gaza Strip’s coastal frontage and rich cultural history has the potential to attract holiday-goers; sun-worshippers headed to any other beach would adore the city’s sandy beaches and old-world charm. What’s stopping the influx of tourists has been the massive destruction caused by the Israeli military fighting against the state’s governing body, the right-wing Hamas, tearing up the infrastructure of the city and causing unspeakable damage to the soul of the city.
Understandably, a major hurdle is that “tourists” are not actually permitted in the city of Gaza. Visitors come under other pretexts, for example humanitarian aid work. There are also no flights directly into Gaza; visitors fly into Cairo before making their way through the Rafah crossing, the border between Israel and Egypt. Visitors also require various administrative documents received far in advance. The administrative hassle is undoubtedly a hurdle for the casual vacationer, but a fair number still make the trip.
Gaza City has an ancient history dating back hundreds, if not thousands of years. While indiscriminate violence has destroyed parts of the city, there are still historical attractions and landmarks to be seen. Qasr al-Basha is now a girls’ school and museum found in the Old City of Gaza. In its glory days, the castle was known to house the Mamluk Sultan Zaher Baibars, his wife and children. The architecture is typical of Mamluk-Bahri rule, with geometrical patterns and domes, fan and cross vaults adorning the structure. Now, the building is a school and museum, developed by The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), showcasing artefacts from various periods throughout ancient history.
Woven into the fabric of the city, the Great Mosque of Gaza, also known as the Omari Mosque, is the largest and oldest mosque located in the Old City of Gaza. The mosque dates back to 649 AD, with the portico and minaret built during the Mamluk period. The expansive mosque can accommodate up to 2,000 worshippers and is also known for its architecture. It has however, been damaged by fighting, causing destruction to some of its much beloved features.
There are great dangers and risks involved in travelling to Gaza. It is considered very high risk and while there is optimism amongst the people that the situation will improve, many governments still advise against it. Travelling there may also negatively impact your travel insurance; should there be an emergency, it may not be possible for your insurer to assist you. But as an uneasy tranquility exists now, people of Gaza are beginning to see hope for the future of the industry and an eventual end to the fighting. Through the all hurricanes it has weathered, the heart of the city beats on.
By 2013, over 170 students were emolled in what was now a Gaza-focused experimental Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) with many faculty sharing their expertise and experiences in peace-building. The Gaza virtual classroom welcomed interested individuals from over 20 countries, including Turkey,Russia, Kenya and Uruguay, who wanted to work hand in hand with Gaza youth on the class topic of identifYing a vision of peace and prosperity for 2050, and also the steps for its realization. The prized vision adopted by the class, described in detail later, centered on tourism as the primary driver of development and peace in the region.
….......................... The target date of 2050 was chosen for the resolution of all issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians because by that time the students would be community leaders and helping to mold the development of their homeland in line with the specifics of their vision. To emphasize this point, in the live sessions Mcintosh and Alfaleet would talk of the present only in the past tense. In a very short time period, the students were beginning to feel confident that the power to realize their dream was in their own hands. By making the vision of the future come alive in the students' minds, the teachers temporarily lifted the burden of daily life from their shoulders and provided a safe space for them to think creatively. In 2050, the torment and strife of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Gaza blockade, unemployment and poverty, the sewage and water crisis, the 'imprisonment' and other suffering, would all be a distant memory.
MOSAIC MESSAGES MAKE A BORDER BARRIER A PEACE WALL Jewish Journal, Carol Denbo, November 19, 2015
Amidst all the recent turmoil in Israel, the resiliency and eternal optimism of its people are a constant source of inspiration. Although surrounded by enemies, I am reminded of how Israelis can take a bleak situation and turn it into a positive.
On our most recent trip to Israel earlier this month, we traveled to Moshav Netiv HaAsara, which sits only meters from the Gaza border. Living so close to the Gaza Strip, its residents live under the daily threat of incoming rockets being fired by Hamas. A large gray concrete wall separates the Gaza Strip from this Moshav and lies adjacent to the Moshav’s homes. Tsameret Zamir, an artist who has lived her whole life on this Moshav, has created an Israeli mosaic mural which she has entitled “Netiv L’Shalom,” which means “path to peace.”
She explained to us that this is a unique project in which thousands of people are able to take an active part. Tsameret handmakes different mosaic tiles in her ceramics studio and invites visitors to decorate them using images, designs and words that promote peace. These colorful mosaic pieces are then glued onto the gray security wall. She sends her tiles all over the world so that school children can participate in this amazing project; the tiles are decorated and then returned to her so that they can be glued on the wall.
Her goal is to project love and happiness between all people, and she hopes that those living on the other side of the border will also see these messages and take away the possibility of a peaceful future. Tsameret has taken a reminder of constant danger, a large border wall, and turned it into a symbol of hope and optimism.
We left her Moshav more upbeat than when we arrived.
LEVEL UP GAZA Basil Eleiwa 2015 (4.15) Designed with business in mind, this multi service hospitality complex; which includes an international cuisine fine dining restaurant, an exceptional terrace overlooking the city and a private lounge is just minutes from Gaza's key attractions, shopping facilities and business center.
ROOTS HOTEL GAZA Abdalbaset SFX 2014 (3.26)
GAZA’S PROSEROUS ECONOMY: AL JAZEERA SHOWS A SIDE TO GAZA THAT WESTERN MEDIA WON’T Tom Gross 2018 (11.12) This report from Gaza on the Arabic language version of Al Jazeera TV, has just been translated into English. It accompanies this article I wrote https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2018/02.... (Also here: http://www.tomgrossmedia.com/mideastd...). The video shows footage of bustling, well-stocked glitzy shopping malls, an impressive children’s water park (at 5.25 in the video), fancy restaurants, nice hotels, the crowded food markets, toy shops brimming with the latest plush toys (at 8.39 in the video).
Western media has often focused on the Gaza to the detriment of many other issues and crises throughout the world, such as Yemen. The BBC, in particular, has devoted an inordinate amount of its budget and staff to covering Gaza in thousands of reports over the years. But you would be hard pressed to learn from western media coverage that, despite many difficulties, Gaza’s economy is also thriving in all kinds of ways. Or that life expectancy in Gaza is now five years higher than the world average.
And unlike those typically seen in European and American media dispatches from Gaza, in the Al-Jazeera video, almost no Palestinian interviewed even mentions Israel. Instead, they point primarily to the internal Palestinian political rift between Hamas and Fatah as being their main concern in terms of their businesses thriving. Israel barely gets a look in.
* See also: Turkish TV shows abundance of food and supplies in Gaza https://youtu.be/aCJALrWB09A
ABUNDANCE OF FOOD AND SUPPLIES IN GAZA Tom Gross May 24, 2018 (2.53)
New from Turkish TV: another example of the plentiful side of Gaza that the western media won't show us. This was broadcast on Turkish Channel TRT on May 24, 2018.
See also from Al-Jazeera Arabic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbH1n...
AFTER BANKSY: THE PARKOUR GUIDE TO GAZA The Guardian 2015 (2.33)
In response to graffiti artist Banksy's Make this the Year YOU Discover a New Destination Gaza tourist video, the Gaza Parkour team show us what real life is like there and their dreams beyond the border.
To the sounds of Palestine's biggest female hip-hop artist, Shadia Mansour, join Abdallah AlQassab and the rest of the free-running team as they flip, somersault and leap their way round the ruined city