From the hand-carved bed in the al-Mashtal’s royal suite you look straight out at the setting sun casting pink and orange hues over the darkening Mediterranean Sea. Below the expansive terrace, scattered with wicker sun loungers, is a lavish swimming pool set in tastefully landscaped gardens.
Crisp cotton sheets dress the beds and fluffy bathrobes hang in gleaming bathrooms. Behind the oak reception desk in the vast marble-floored lobby a charming young woman with long curls and a welcoming smile greets visitors.
This looks and feels like an upmarket resort hotel in, perhaps, Sharm el-Sheikh. However, this is Gaza City and if you turn your eyes away from the setting sun you will see a Hamas military training camp next door which was recently bombed by the Israeli military.
The al-Mashtal is Gaza’s first and only five-star hotel, an ambitious project in a place where there are no tourists and about 70 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. After a troubled history, the hotel is in the process of a gradual opening and the early signs are that it faces a challenging future.
Construction began in the mid-1990s in the optimistic days following the signing of the Oslo Accords when many believed lasting peace and a Palestinian state were realistic prospects. Funded by a consortium of Palestinian businessmen and Persian Gulf state backers, it was originally planned as an office block, but the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada brought work to a halt.
The building, redesignated as a hotel to be operated by the upmarket chain Movenpick, was eventually completed in 2006. A year later, Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip following bloody battles and the hotel was mothballed.
Then a year ago, ArcMed, a Spanish group, agreed to open the hotel.
“I came to the hotel and saw the possibilities,” said ArcMed president Anna Balletbo, whose connections with Gaza stretch back more than 40 years.
In her view the possibilities were more about job and training opportunities for Gazans than a hard-headed business proposition, although she adds: “Our only condition is not to lose money.”
After being cleaned, furnished and equipped, the hotel, which was damaged during the war in Gaza in 2008 and 2009, opened 77 of its 220 rooms and two of its restaurants on May 1. It hired 70 local staff to work with three Spanish managers and began training them to international standards.
The management immediately ran into difficulties with supplies.
“Wherever possible we are buying things from the local market,” Balletbo said. “We only import what we can’t find in Gaza.”
At times there have been long delays in getting imported supplies through the tightly controlled crossings from Israel into Gaza. When the hotel’s manager, Rafel Carpinell, wanted to put duck on the menu he discovered that Gazans found the concept of eating the birds incomprehensible. Mussels and mushrooms have also been hard to find.
Carpinell, who previously managed hotels in Mallorca and the Dominican Republic, has become accustomed to the sound of Israeli air strikes during the eight months he has spent in Gaza.
In the absence of tourists, Balletbo hopes journalists, visiting delegations and UN staff will stay at the hotel. There are signs that affluent Gazans are keen to enjoy the hotel’s restaurants and cafes, and there have already been a number of bookings for weddings and conferences.