August 20, 1998
Austrian investors are opening a casino inside Palestinian territory, betting that Israelis, Europeans and Gulf Arabs will play
Rolling the Dice in Jericho
By Eric Silver, Mideast Correspondent
Las Vegas has come to the Promised Land. The biggest casino resort in the Middle East, the lowest dive on Earth, will open next month on the desert plain between Jericho and the Dead Sea, with 35 tables, 220 slot machines, a restaurant, a bar and an entertainment lounge.
Casinos Austria, a state corporation that operates more than 100 casinos worldwide, is investing $150 million in the project, which will eventually include 800 hotel rooms, a golf course and tennis courts on a five-square-kilometer site. "We are going to make a lot of money here," predicted the founding director-general, Alexander Tucek.
Construction began a year ago, and the German project manager, Daniel Bahr, is confident that the first stage -- all-white concrete and mirror glass shimmering in the midsummer glare -- will be finished in time for the scheduled opening on Sept. 15. Haughty transplanted date palms shade the entrance. The paths across the sand are paved in red brick. A water purification plant is pumping away.
The Jericho casino is just inside Palestinian Authority territory, but easily accessible to the thousands of frustrated Israeli gamblers who are barred from a legal flutter in their own country. Until recently, they flocked by the planeload to the gaming rooms of Turkey, but Ankara this year succumbed to the mullahs and stopped the roulette wheels.
The good Moslems of Jericho, a shabby, flyblown oasis 940 feet below sea level, are torn between their eagerness for jobs and tourist revenues and their fear of the accompanying mayhem.
"We had nothing to do with this casino project," said Basem Abedrabbo, the wary municipal spokesman. "We issued a licence to build a five-star hotel. The Palestinian Authority gave permission for the casino. I can't say we are in favor, but we are not against."
Sheikh Ismail al Jamal, who presides over the oldest mosque in the world's oldest inhabited city, emphatically is against it. "It is forbidden by our religion," said the gentle, white-bearded cleric. "We don't want a casino in our society. It will bring a lot of bad things -- gambling, alcohol, striptease shows."
The municipal spokesman estimates that Jericho's 20,000 Arabs are split 50-50 for and against. The mayor, Abdel Karim Sidder, is hedging his bets. "If the casino causes a lot of problems," he said, "I don't think it will be difficult to stop it in one or two years."
Bahr discounts religious resistance. "In Jericho, the fundamentalists are not in the driving seat," the project manager said. "The people here want to develop their country. They want to create jobs. The Palestinians will get income from taxes, from wages, from the tourist spillover into the city."
About 70 percent of the 400 Palestinians working on the site come from the dusty, sprawling Aqabal Jabr refugee camp across the main road. "They're happy," Bahr said. "They want the money." The Austrians expect to employ another 350 Palestinians in the casino and 500 in the hotel, which is due to open next summer. Some of the dealers will be British; others will be Palestinians trained on site.
"Let's wait till the casino opens and people understand what it's really about," Sheikh al Jamal said. "Then we'll see. Jericho is a very religious, Islamic town. It just doesn't show it. I don't think people will stand for the casino."
What will the mosque do to stop it? "My job," said the preacher, sitting beneath a watchful poster of Yasser Arafat, "is to make people aware that this is wrong. We will tell them not to touch anything that is forbidden by our religion. We'll urge people not to work at the casino. But we won't use force.
"We've already had people who applied for jobs, then backed out when they found out what was involved. Others stayed because they needed the work, but gave false names."
From the start, Arafat's government has banned Palestinians from the gaming tables. The promoters are targeting Israelis, Gulf Arabs and sun-seeking Europeans. Jericho is half an hour's drive from Jerusalem, an hour and a half from Tel Aviv, and five minutes from the Allenby Bridge, which links the West Bank to Jordan and Arabia.
The site is ringed by a high, spiky steel fence for maximum protection. Video circuits are being installed. Visitors will be frisked, their passports vetted.
The developers are relying on Palestinian self-interest and the combined vigilance of Israeli and Palestinian security services to keep the high rollers safe from Hamas suicide bombers.
"If somebody really wants to do it," said Bahr, "they can sit on a hill over there and fire a SAM rocket into the casino. But I don't think they will."
Maybe, maybe not. The gamblers will calculate the risks for themselves. That, after all, is what casinos are about.