Hotel, casino await peace

SUN JOURNAL

Jericho: War broke out as the luxury resort was opening. The casino shut down, but the hotel idles along with a skeleton staff and handful of customers, hoping for better times.

October 01, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERICHO, West Bank - The Lemon Grove restaurant is small but elegant, with white table cloths and patterned china plates. Perched on the ninth floor of the Intercontinental Hotel, it towers over the lowest city on Earth.

Its staff is dedicated and friendly, impeccably but casually dressed in shirts splattered with tropical colors. Waiters wielding small silver brushes sweep crumbs from the table into matching dustpans, and the chef always wears a long white coat and tall hat.

It is a strange sight for a grand, 181-room hotel that has no logical reason for being open.

Built in July 2000, the hotel enjoyed only three months of boom times before fighting erupted between Israelis and Palestinians, forcing an adjacent casino to close and keeping all but a handful of paying customers away.

The hotel had only two guests on a recent Saturday, but they didn't miss out on any of the luxuries that are expected of an establishment that enjoys the Intercontinental's reputation.

The marble floors were spotless, the water in the pools sparkled and the nets were in place on the two tennis courts.

And the entire, mostly idle staff was decked out in uniform.

The very instant peace arrives, the Intercontinental will be ready. The bellhops will be suitably dressed. The chef will have food. The bar will be stocked. And the cleaning staff will have already cleaned.

"We have our standards," says the financial controller, Munzer Izhiman. "As long as you are on duty, you will be in uniform."

Jericho is one of the few Palestinian cities on the West Bank not occupied by Israeli troops. But soldiers surround its 5,500 residents, trapping them in this village of squat brown houses that rise like stubble out of the hard brown desert.

Since the Palestinian uprising began in October 2000, tourists and Israelis have been prevented from visiting this ancient village 1,200 feet below sea level and first inhabited, some archaeologists believe, up to 10,000 years ago.

Two years ago, the hotel was a target. The Israeli army accused Palestinian gunmen of using the building's rooftop to shoot at the tiny Jewish settlement of Vered Yeriho, nestled halfway up an adjacent mountain.

The army fired back, peppering the hotel faM-gade with bullets, shattering windows of the restaurant and wrecking rooms offering the best of views. The neon sign atop the hotel was knocked out by rockets.

Workers quickly fixed the damage, and Jericho returned to its sedentary state, with the searing sun dictating a lazy pace and its 5,500 inhabitants more interested in harvesting dates and oranges than picking up guns.

But the Israeli army has kept Jericho under wraps. There is only one way in and one way out, guarded by armed soldiers and huge concrete blocks linked with green army mesh and barbed wire stretched across a rutted dirt road.

The hotel's fate is directly linked to the adjacent Oasis casino, built in 1998 by Israeli and Palestinian businessmen who managed to forge a rare partnership to capitalize on a vice that is prohibited by each of their respective religions.

Israel prohibits gambling, but Israelis longing to make quick money flock to casinos across the region. The Palestinians also outlaw gambling and are allowed into the Oasis only to work.

Israelis made up 95 percent of the casino customers, pouring an untold amount of money into its 220 slot machines, felt-topped blackjack tables and roulette wheels. But for the past two years, it has been illegal, not to mention dangerous, for Israelis to venture into Palestinian-controlled areas.

The Oasis Casino shut down in November 2000. But the Intercontinental Hotel next door stayed open.

Izhiman, the financial manager, can't exactly explain why. It costs up to $40,000 a month to keep the doors open and a tiny staff of 40 people, down from the original 200. But he insists it would be harder and more expensive to reopen after a prolonged closure.

Right after the fighting started, Izhiman says, "we thought it would only last one or two weeks, and then maybe only one or two months." So they stayed open hoping for a quick end. "I never thought it would go on for two years," he says.

Occasionally, being prepared pays off. Last week, the hotel got a wartime dividend and a lesson in international intrigue. The American CIA came to town and checked in.

Secret agents are using the hotel, and its emptiness, to train Palestinian police officers as part of a Washington-based effort to rebuild the Palestinian security forces. With them are police from Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

It is unclear how many people are staying at the hotel, taking a dip in the pool or sipping a cold one at the bar. Reporters who tried to approach were sent away by authorities at the gate.

Usually, the few people who stay are journalists, United Nations workers and couples on their way to or from Jordan over the nearby Allenby Bridge. Most Palestinians cannot afford the prices, even though they are now $90 a night instead of the $180 charged before the fighting.

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