JERICHO (Sep. 20)
The biblical Joshua who led the Israelites’ siege of Jericho could never have dreamed that stud poker would breathe life back into this dusty Palestinian-ruled town.
But last week, hundreds of Israelis made the short 30-minute drive down the winding road from Jerusalem to place their bets at Oasis, a new gambling complex in Jericho and the first big foreign investment in the Palestinian self-rule areas.
They found 35 gaming tables and 220 slot machines amid the classic casino- kitsch decor beneath a star-studded ceiling. The $50 million casino is the first stage of a $150 million investment in a tourist complex that will eventually include 800 hotel rooms, a golf course and conference facilities.
Paul Herzfeld, chief executive of Casinos Austria, which operates Oasis, said Jericho was chosen because of “the magical setting of the desert against the city.”
His description of the setting made no mention of an impoverished Palestinian refugee camp directly across the road, perhaps because the camp is hard to see at night — it has no electricity.
The contrast between the casino’s opulence and the stark poverty of the refugee camp is just one of several controversies surrounding Oasis, but it did not impede the action on opening night last week, when nearly all the gamblers were Israeli.
Most appeared to be experienced gamblers.
Until Oasis opened, they had to travel abroad, board a gambling ship off the southern resort town of Eilat or join illegal casino parties to bet.
At almost every table, at least one player wore a black skullcap.
Peering over the crowd gathered around a roulette table, a man who calls himself Mike, a clean-cut 38-year-old accountant from Tel Aviv wearing a rainbow-colored tie and a black kipah, prepared to wager up to $5,000 on blackjack.
“It’s a nice place, but a bit small,” says Mike, a veteran of casinos all over the world. “Living in Israel is one big gamble. If you gamble with your life, you might as well gamble with your money.”
It doesn’t matter to Mike that he must go to a Palestinian area to bet.
“At least we get to kick the Arabs’ asses when we win,” he says.
“Anyway, this money is going to go straight into the pockets of Arafat’s friends, not the Palestinian Authority,” he adds, repeating a persistent rumor that senior Palestinian officials are casino shareholders and that the Palestinian Authority will see little tax revenues from the venture — revenues that were one of the justifications Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat provided for supporting the casino.
Mike is not surprised at the number of observant Jews at the tables. Surmising that there are probably many more who have removed their kipot when they entered, he predicts that many American yeshiva students will become regulars.
“The yeshivas will have to put a checkpoint here sooner or later,” he jokes, recalling how rabbis often try to keep their overseas students away from pubs and clubs in downtown Jerusalem.
Some Israeli rabbis have already criticized the casino — a move that puts them on rare common ground with Islamic spiritual leaders who condemned Oasis, since Islam forbids both gambling and alcohol.
Hamas, the fundamentalist Islamic movement, was quick to lash out at the “devil” casino as an enterprise serving “the Zionists and those who became rich over the suffering of our people.”
Though some residents of Jericho will find jobs at the resort, many are uncomfortable with the project and fear it could bring crime and prostitution to their quiet town.
Herzfeld of Casinos Austria insisted that the casino took into consideration the “spiritual, religious and cultural specificities of the region.”
But Arafat was taking no chances. Eager to avoid confrontation with an increasingly powerful Hamas, he prohibited Palestinians from the premises. Nevertheless, several Palestinians used foreign passports to come in on opening night.
Inside, the casino provided rare glimpses of what the “new Middle East” envisioned by former Prime Minister Shimon Peres could look like, even though that vision of regional peace and prosperity has virtually vanished in the peacemaking crises of the past two years.
Around the tables, drinks in hand, Israelis rubbed shoulders with wealthy Palestinians who defied Arafat’s orders to stay away. To enter the casino, Israelis nonchalantly submitted themselves to security checks by polite, smiling, Hebrew-speaking Palestinian security guards.
Security guards were less pleasant when they ordered this reporter to leave the premises for “disturbing” the gamblers. They also attacked an Israeli photographer from Kol Ha’ir, a weekly newspaper in Jerusalem, who photographed a senior Palestinian Authority member with close ties to Arafat who is rumored to be an Oasis investor.
Casinos Austria officials refused to discuss the ownership structure of Oasis. In addition, they would not say how much taxes would be paid to the cash- strapped Palestinian Authority from casino revenues. They did say that the agreement under which the casino was built was “favorable” to the company, one of the biggest casino groups in the world.
The tight ring of security also reminded gamblers that Oasis was far from European, despite intense efforts by Gitam BBDO, an Israeli public relations and advertising agency, to create such an image.
A two-page centerfold spread in the weekend magazine section of Yediot Achronot, Israel’s most popular daily, shows blonde, stylishly dressed European-looking women placing their bets next to dapper, smiling men in suits.
“The dream is already here,” proclaims the ad, boasting an “international atmosphere” between the Dead Sea and Jericho. The word “Palestinian” does not appear once.
Inside the casino, the scene was far less glamorous, despite the shine of the new premises. There were few women to be seen, most of the male gamblers looked intense as losses mounted, and they dressed far less finely than the models in the ads.
The only hint of Europe was the staff brought in to train the Palestinian dealers and oversee the operation.
They are being housed at Ma’aleh Adumim, a Jewish settlement just outside Jerusalem. Casino officials said there was simply no room in Jericho.
None of these issues mattered much to Israeli gamblers. In fact, as Israeli lawmakers heard about the heavy action and a potentially high tax windfall, some even talked about legalizing gambling in Israel.
Yossi, an Atlantic City veteran who did not give his last name, would certainly give them his vote.
“It’s nice here,” he says, looking around and puffing on a cigarette as he heads back for the tables with several thousand dollars in his pocket. “But it would be better if we could spend our money in Israel.”