Midnight At The Oasis Palestinians leave politics at the door.


Jericho, West Bank — It’s always been a gamble for Israeli Jews to travel into the West Bank. Now there may be a payoff. While many Israelis are making pilgrimages to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron this holiday season, many others are traveling the winding roads of the West Bank to visit the region’s newest casino.

Seemingly undeterred by skirmishes between Palestinian stone-throwers and Israeli troops in Hebron and other West Bank towns in recent weeks, Israeli Jews and Arabs have been flocking to the luxurious Oasis built in this Palestinian-ruled town.

Since its official opening less than a month ago, the $50 million casino has attracted tens of thousands of gamblers, at least 70 percent of them Israelis or East Jerusalem Arabs with Israeli identity cards. The remaining 30 percent are vacationing Europeans or Palestinians with foreign passports. According to an agreement Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat reached with Muslim clerics, local Palestinians are not permitted to enter the casino. The reality? Those with second passports do so freely.

Part of a yet-to-be-completed $150 million complex that will include luxury hotels, a convention center and golf course, the Oasis was built by Casinos Austria and unnamed European and Palestinian investors. Some 400 Palestinians have been employed by the project, and another 1,000 are expected to find work within two years.

The complex promises to breathe new life into a town that, before the Palestinian uprising, attracted secular Israelis in search of an authentic Arab meal on a lazy Shabbat afternoon. With the start of the intifada, however, Jews stopped frequenting Jericho’s open-air restaurants, and the rest of the West Bank, for that matter.

The Palestinian Authority, which like the Israeli government has embraced the project, reportedly will receive $2 million in taxes during the complex’s first two to three years of operation. (Rumors persist, according to published reports, that senior Palestinian officials are casino shareholders and that the Palestinian Authority will see little tax revenue from the venture — revenue that were one of the justifications Arafat provided for supporting the casino.) After that, the tax rate will triple to about 30 percent.

The fact that the Palestinian economy will receive revenue from Israeli gamblers has prompted a loud debate in Israel, where casinos are illegal. The Knesset is considering a bill that would tax all casino profits, thus giving Israel a piece of the gambling pie.

Others point out that casino cruises operate off the coast of Eilat and that hundreds of thousands of Israelis contribute to overseas economies during vacations spent gambling abroad. They say it’s high time Israel got off its high moral horse and permitted casino gambling.

But many Israelis, notably those in the religious community, are vehemently opposed to casinos, believing they bring crime and immorality.

In August, Deputy Health Minister Shlomo Benizri of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party told an Israeli daily that “you don’t have to be religious to be against casinos, you just have to be normal or sane. You can also make money from drugs and prostitution or the sale of weapons on the black market. Do you want money at all costs?”

Judging from the huge number of Israelis flocking to Jericho, most people here aren’t overly concerned about a “bad element.”

For Israeli Jews — a large percentage of whom have avoided traveling to the West Bank or Gaza Strip since the violent days of the Palestinian intifada — a trip to the Oasis is usually a fun, if surreal, experience. To reach the casino from Jerusalem about 30 miles away, drivers take a narrow Israeli-controlled road devoid of lights past vast, parched mountains and tented Bedouin encampments. The gleaming white building on the outskirts of town is almost directly across the street from a teeming refugee camp.

Once inside the large parking lot, Hebrew-speaking Palestinian security men search visitors’ trunks for guns and other such paraphernalia — an ironic turning of the tables for most Israelis.

Past the metal detectors but outside the gaming hall, visitors must present either a passport or an Israeli ID card. Tonight, a German NGO worker who has not brought his passport is begging the casino’s manager to let him in. A woman in shorts and sneakers is told that a strict dress code will go into effect by the end of the month.

As its name implies, the Oasis appears to be that rarest of Middle Eastern commodities: a place where Jews and Arabs willingly put aside their political and religious differences in the search for profits. It’s a place where Arab croupiers greet Israeli gamblers in Hebrew, where Arab moneychangers and chasidim sit side by side at the roulette table.

“People leave politics and policies out in the parking lot,” says Alex Tucek, the casino’s Austrian-born director, surveying the packed gambling hall the night before Yom Kippur. “We’re in business, not politics.”

While the casino has spent a small fortune to put a positive spin on things, calling it a boon not only for the Palestinian economy but the entire peace process, it is obvious from the discussions around the gaming tables that for at least a couple of hours, gambling is all that matters.

“It’s good to have a relaxing place to come where Jews and Arabs are together, having a good time instead of fighting,” says Kamal Tayah, a Jerusalem Arab, sitting at a large card table. “Before the 1948 war, Jews and Arabs lived together. Back then, my father owned a textile business and had Jewish partners.”

Many Israelis, especially Jews, admit that they were a bit concerned about their personal safety, even though the casino has employed an international team of security guards and reportedly has received assurances from Islamic groups that the casino will not be a terrorist target.

“I admit that it’s really weird to be here, especially since I haven’t been to the territories since the intifada, but it’s very safe here,” says Rachel Cohen, a Jerusalem homemaker. “Really, this is an Israeli casino.”

“It’s a great place, but I wish the restaurants were kosher,” says Gadi, a farmer from Beit Shean. “But I guess that would be asking too much.”

Some Israelis believe that the Jericho casino provides the best of both worlds: a place to gamble within easy commuting distance but outside of Israel’s borders. And next month it will become even easier: tour buses from Jerusalem and the Dead Sea hotels are expected to begin, Tucek said.

As one chasid, sitting at a slot machine, puts it: “I wouldn’t gamble in Israel, but since this isn’t Israel, what’s the harm?