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Behind the Headlines: Raising Hopes for Tourism, a Casino Rises in Biblical Jericho

Two giant buildings grow out of the arid terrain near this ancient town. Tall, newly planted palm trees flank the entrance to the complex.

These new additions to the landscape presage the opening of a casino scheduled to open here this fall — the first legal gambling house to operate either in Israel or in the Palestinian self-rule areas.

The biblical town that Joshua entered, hit hard by dashed hopes and unemployment, is hoping that Lady Luck will intervene.

The Austrian company Casino Austria has invested some $150 million in Oasis, which will include hotels, a congress hall, golf courses, tennis courts, and a casino, and will occupy an area of more than 3 square miles.

According to Alexander Tuchek, the Austrian director-general of the project, the tourism and leisure center will revolutionize the entire Middle East.

"The new site will attract the peoples of the area, and will offer its guests pleasure and entertainment in a wonderful place," said Tuchek, who estimates that the project could provide work to 1,000 residents out of the city’s total population of 20,000.

But many Jericho residents are not so sure.

On the surface, the idea appears to have merit. Jericho certainly needs a shot in the arm.

The town that was full of optimism in 1994, when it became the first to enjoy Palestinian autonomy — indeed, residents once hoped that Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat would set up his self-rule government here instead of in the Gaza Strip — has, like the rest of the areas under Palestinian control, seen its economic conditions worsen since the Israelis left.

All initiatives to open casinos in Israel to date have failed so far because of religious opposition and the concern of organized crime involvement. Israelis used to flock each summer to casino houses in Turkey, but these were banned last year at the demand of Islamic leaders.

Jericho is located only half an hour’s drive from Jerusalem, 90 minutes from Tel Aviv. With temperatures hardly ever falling beneath 60 degrees, it’s an ideal winter resort town.

Looking to boost Israeli tourism, the Palestinian Authority approved the project, but some residents of Jericho are not as enthusiastic.

"Turkey has closed its casinos, so why should we open them?" asked Hajj Mansure Al-Slymah of the Jericho Chamber of Commerce.

The man on the street here longs for the Israeli shopper — not the Israeli gambler. Before the Oslo peace accords, Israelis traveling from Jerusalem to the north via the Jordan Valley had no choice but to pass through Jericho, then one of the safest places in the West Bank.

They would stop at its outdoor restaurants and its colorful fruit and vegetable stands. Now, as part of new security arrangements, a bypass road has been built, allowing Israelis to travel through the Jordan Valley without traveling through Jericho.

"We believe that whoever visits the casino will not make it to Jericho proper," said Kzeam Moaqet, chairman of the local chamber of commerce.

Indeed, because the casino is located just inside the Palestinian side of the border with Israel, visitors will still be able to avoid the center of Jericho.

Downtown Jericho has one main square, with several gray and empty streets leading onto it. There are shabby buildings, and local residents walk around with sour countenances. Only the palm trees and the green orchards in this Jordan Valley oasis add a touch of brightness.

One of the ancient buildings near the main square is the Hisham Palace Hotel, which was reopened as a hotel in 1995. Sheik Rajai Abdu, a Muslim cleric and co-owner of this family business, returned to Jericho after a lengthy stay in the United States, hoping that the hotel could serve as headquarters of the Palestinian Authority and enjoy the potential tourism boom.

But neither the government nor the tourists materialized — and the hotel’s 30 rooms are still empty.

Although the casino possibly could help his business, Abdu still opposes the plan.

"Casinos in the Holy Land go against our religion. But even in business terms, it is not the kind of tourist attractions we would like to see here," says the liberal Muslim cleric.

The fact that the Palestinian Authority approved the project and gave it the necessary licenses, proves, in Abdu’s eyes, "how corrupt our leaders are."

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