Luxury Palestinian mall signals transformation of 'terror capital'
'Many in West Bank have money but nowhere to spend it if they're after quality,' says entrepreneur.
The skies lit up over Jenin last month, and it wasn't tracer bullets or flash bombs but celebratory fireworks, set off to mark the occasion of the opening of Hirbawi Home Center, a new luxury establishment on the city's outskirts.
The five-story building near the Jalame checkpoint cost $5 million to build, says its owner, and it is filled with deluxe, foreign-made products seen mostly in the pages of newspaper supplements.
This shopping opportunity is intended to interest the upper crust of Jenin, and while some might think the proposition suggests financial suicide, the profit forecasts for the project have been so favorable the owner plans to open four more shops in the West Bank and one in Jordan.
The next city to enjoy a Hirbawi Home Center is Ramallah, where one is already in partial operation; then Hebron, Tul Karem and Nablus.
"It may sound mad to outsiders," says the chain's CEO, Ziad Turabi, "but to us it makes perfect sense. We believe we can make a very handsome profit. Many people in the occupied territories have money but they have nowhere to spend it if they're after quality. We offer them the best quality there is."
This may not sound like the familiar description of the occupied territories - the impoverished Palestinian village or the overcrowded refugee camp, a population sustaining itself on international aid. But it turns out that quite a few Palestinians consider a plasma screen, a surround sound stereo and comfortable chairs to be fairly essential items.
Here, on the fifth floor of the Jenin operation, overlooking the fields separating Israel from Jenin, are the in-demand electric gadgets: enormous TV screens, vacuum cleaners, espresso machines, and the list goes on and on. Turabi points out that some products are only available in Home Center shops. "This is an espresso machine that grinds the coffee beans," he says. "People want more and more of these products. They ask for the finest quality." Most of the products on sale are imported through the port of Ashdod. "We have exclusive deals with quite a few brands," says Turabi. "They'll only market their products at Home Center."
The idea turns out to be approximately five years old. Mwafaq Hirbawi, a prominent businessman in the carpet trade, was looking for a new avenue in which to branch out. He put up a few buildings across the occupied territories without determining their final purpose.
Turabi, who hails from the furniture business, has worked with the Hirbawi family for 14 years, and he was the man they turned to to run the enterprise. "We were making our evaluations for a few months and decided to go for the luxury brands, like LG for electrics and Meselmani for kitchens. After linking up the furniture I was dealing with the carpet business [and] we realized we can grow further. We got several offers to give it up, to rent out the buildings, but Mwafaq didn't want to, he was looking for something different and new," Turabi says.
"But how will you profit? Who'll go to Jenin to buy luxury wares?"
"We've been working for a few months now and every day had been like opening day. We are very pleased, and the profits have been very satisfying so far. Don't worry, we're not going to lose, and we truly believe that. It's true that Jenin is like a big village and wealthy people here are few. Everyone told us to start off with Ramallah. But I came here a few months ago and ran some profit estimates."
"And what if there's a closure on Jenin tomorrow?"
"Let's just say we don't pin much hopes on shoppers from other areas. If something really major happens in the West Bank, well, there's not much we can do. But let's also say that if I was a pessimist forever thinking about all the things that could go wrong, we never would have opened. But we think we can make a very handsome profit here."
The prices are not much cheaper than in Israel, perhaps except on the furniture, arguably the true gem of the place. A decorated glass table is sold on the second floor for NIS 2,800; Turabi suggest it would have cost 40 percent more in Israel. One can also find china plates, crystal, classical furniture and more. The company is preparing to begin building the Hebron branch, which will accommodate a retail area of about 12,000 square meters. Curious would-be shoppers can see the display rooms of the business live-cast on the Web.
"Abu Tarek," the Jenin area commander, seemed pleased. He and his predecessor, "Abu Hadid," have turned "terrorism capital" into the quietest, safest city in the West Bank. Jenin, the flagship project of the American administration and the U.S. security coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Lieutenant-General Keith Dayton, has become the success story of the new PA. "What brings Hirbawi and others is the security situation", Abu Tarek says. "We solved quite a few issues and, Inshallah (God willing, we will see many more investments. Even the refugee camp is quiet now. There are no militants and we react very quickly to any incident. The residents believed in the security apparatus. They trust us and assist us."
"And you can see it on the street. Shops are open until late, women can go around fearlessly."
"What about attacks on Israel?"
"It's been over two years since the last attack from Jenin against Israel. We went to great length to prevent terror attacks, and your people know that."
A third factor which makes the change in the West Bank possible is the Israel Defense Forces. Abu Tarek says the Israeli army was still carrying out operations in the West Bank but became "a lot less violent." And one of the Palestinians present, who witnessed his brothers' arrest recently, chuckles: "They're very gentle nowadays. They come quietly, knock on the door and say politely: Army, please open up."