Walls going up in Jericho -- construction of casino-hotel Palestinians, Israelis have role in project

July 26, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERICHO, West Bank -- A shrine of a different kind is about to open here.

It's a $150 million casino-hotel under construction on a barren, sun-seared plot on the edge of this spring-fed, West Bank town )) that some archaeologists date to 8,000 B.C.

Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority is backing the project. An Israeli public relations firm is promoting it. An Austrian outfit with unidentified Arab partners is developing the project. And the complaints of religious fundamentalists won't stop it.

The peace process should be so easy.

By October, the place where Joshua's trumpets brought down the walls 3,250 years ago will sound of slot machines and gaming chips. The casino will be the first of its kind in the Holy Land.

The fact that such a project is opening in Palestinian-controlled territory is significant. Efforts to bring casino gambling to Israel's seaside resorts have been defeated because of the political influence of the country's Orthodox religious establishment.

The opposition from Jericho's majority Muslim community is no less vocal -- gambling violates the tenets of Islam. But Arafat's self-rule authority has simply decided to bar its people from the casino, according to a spokesman for the resort project.

"First of all, Muslims are not allowed to play in casinos. So this is something that most of the local residents will never come to," said Ilan Pilo, a spokesman for the Tel Aviv-based Gitam Porter Novelli advertising agency. The Israeli agency is the publicist for the developer, Casinos Austria. "Palestinians won't be able to get into the casino and this is part of the agreement between Casinos Austria and the Palestinian Authority."

What it will offer

The Oasis Tourist Resort, named for Jericho's historic place as a fertile area in the desert, will house 220 slot machines, 35 gaming tables, a restaurant-bar and entertainment lounge.

The hotel complex will offer 800 rooms, conference facilities, a pool, golf course and tennis courts.

The full resort is scheduled to open next summer, in time for the millions of tourists expected to travel here to celebrate the new millennium.

The land for the complex was donated by the Palestinian Authority. An entity associated with the government, the Palestinian Commercial Services Co., has a stake in the project, according to a report in the Jerusalem Times. But Pilo, the spokesman for Casinos Austria, would not discuss the venture's Palestinian partners.

"This is something Casinos Austria doesn't want to get into," said Pilo.

Palestinian officials familiar with the project were unavailable for comment.

Jobs, but for whom?

Casinos Austria operates more than 100 gaming houses throughout the world, including ones in Denmark, Argentina, Egypt and Australia.

The company contends the resort project will provide jobs for 1,000 Palestinians. But many of the casino employees are

expected to be drawn from the company's international staff of dealers and croupiers.

That doesn't surprise Ali Shweiki, a spokesman for the Jericho municipality.

"I don't think it's going to serve Jericho and the people of Jericho," he said of the mostly agricultural community.

Munther Nimer, a tile worker from Jericho, said gambling conflicts with the culture and traditions of the mostly Muslim population.

"If there is another alternative, I don't think people will work in a casino like this. But there are no jobs," he added.

Mohammed Abdullah, who works at a medical clinic run by the Islamic Al Islah Society, said a majority of Jericho residents oppose the casino for religious reasons.

"There's a verse in the Koran that says liquor and gambling are among the deeds of the devil, so avoid them if you want to succeed," said the 20-year-old bookkeeper who wears the beard of a devout Muslim. "And based on this verse, we oppose it."

The project's developers are hoping to draw tourists, Israelis and well-to-do Arabs with foreign passports. They describe the casino as a gaming house designed "in a European style with elements of the Orient."

But don't expect the glitz and scantily clad bar hostesses of Las Vegas' theme casinos, Pilo said. "It's going to be very respectable," he promised.

The developers hope to capitalize on Jericho's rich historical and biblical past. The Mount of Temptation, where Jesus faced down Satan, and Herod's magnificent winter palace are within a short drive of the casino site. Also nearby are the spas nestled along the salty Dead Sea. The Oasis resort is an hour's ride from Jerusalem, through spectacular desert scenery.

But the Jericho of today lacks the panache of the casino capitals of Europe.

It is a dusty outpost of date palms that in 1993 was expected to be the seat of the Palestinian self-rule authority.

But Arafat set up his government in Gaza, and the anticipated boom from peace never materialized.

Peace is ultimate key

Visitors to the casino site see a nine-story building rising in the sand, across the highway from a Palestinian refugee camp and down the road from an Israeli military camp.

Despite the casino's politically sensitive locale, the resort's potential draw is recognized even by those in the Israeli tourism industry.

Its profitability, however, may well rest on the outcome of the struggling peace process, helped by the fact that in Israel, opponents of legalized gambling have so far prevailed.

"Israelis like to gamble and they do it now, either abroad or in Taba [the Egyptian resort just beyond Israel's southern border]," added Moshe Gavish, who chaired an Israeli commission on gambling in 1993.

"If they got to Taba, they will go to Jericho if the situation is stable."

Pub Date: 7/26/98

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