Palestinian casino as damaged as peace process

Published November 16th, 2000 - 02:00 GMT

The Oasis casino in the desert near the world's oldest city of Jericho — once a bustling, cash-guzzling testament to Israeli and Palestinian symbiosis — is now as torn apart by bullets and artillery as the peace process between the increasingly acrimonious enemies. 

 

The luxurious hotel and casino, 15 to 30 percent of which is owned by a secretive fund controlled by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, has been hit some 10 times by Israeli artillery and machine guns during almost seven weeks of bloodletting. 

 

On Sunday, the Oasis's beige and mirrored walls were punctured by an Israeli tank shell and bursts of large-caliber machine guns fired from military positions guarding a Jewish settlement perched on a dune about a kilometer (more than half a mile) away. 

 

In one swanky hotel room — which normally rents for about 200 dollars a night — machine gun fire made a colander of the walls, punching date-sized holes through a double-plated window, a plaster wall behind it, the chamber's door and another one across the hall. 

 

The resort's Austrian general manager Alexander Tucek said more than a half a million dollars worth of damage has been caused to the hotel and casino in Jericho, the West Bank town that was the first to come under Palestinian self-rule in 1994. 

 

He refused, however, to comment on how much revenue has been lost due to the month-long closure of the gambling hall — the only one in Israel and the Palestinian territories — which used to sizzle with 2,500 luck-pushers nightly, almost all of them Israelis. 

 

While most Israelis are reluctant to enter Arab areas — they have been barred from doing so since the deadly violence erupted — the Jericho casino was once a mutually-beneficial anomaly, with Jewish gamblers thrilling at a world-class facility only a half-hour from Jerusalem, and the Palestinians raking in the chips. 

 

Gambling is illegal in Israel, while Palestinians are barred from the Jericho casino due to Islamic sensitivities. 

 

But like the seven-year peace process, the casino now seems to have hit double zero. 

"They (the Israelis) say they were shot at from here. We have many surveillance cameras and there is no evidence that there was shooting from here," Tucek said. "We do not believe any shots were fired from our property, but at night it may appear that way because of reflections from the mirrored glass." 

 

An Israeli army spokesman said Palestinian gunman shoot almost nightly from the hotel rooms at the nearby Vered Yeriho Jewish settlement. 

 

"These are terrorist shootings targeting civilians," he said. 

A senior official from the casino's security staff — practically the only people left on the grounds which formerly employed some 2,500 Palestinians and provided temporary work for another 2,000 — said the army was totally mistaken. 

 

"Look, they shot out the sign twice," he said, squinting at the sun in this sandy esplanade overlooking the Dead Sea, and pointing towards the Inter-continental sign over the hotel, partially blown away by machine guns. 

 

"They shot at the top of the wall. How could there be sniper fire coming from the walls? This was just Israeli target practice," he said. 

 

The security chief added that the resort's 700 surveillance cameras have not shown people firing from inside the hotel or the parking lot, but he refused to show the tapes to reporters. Hotel security also said records of electronic door locks prove that no people were in the rooms when the shooting has allegedly taken place. 

 

"He is lying to your face," said the army spokesman, who accused the West Bank head of the Palestinian preventive security service Jabril Rajoub — who he said has a personal interest in the resort — of using the Oasis as a base to launch attacks on settlers and a nearby army post. 

 

The Oasis, which opened its doors in September 1998, is the main economic interest of Arafat's self-rule Palestinian Authority, which holds $60 million in equity in the facility. 

 

Although the PA's cut of the gambling profits has not been disclosed, the Oasis is the largest holding of a $354 million fund it privately manages, the existence of which was only revealed by the quasi-government in July. 

 

Oasis is managed by Casinos Austria International, and a consortium of Austrian banks and private investors have large holdings. 

 

Tucek said the hotel and casino would re-open as soon as the Israeli army reopened the Palestinian territories to Israelis. 

 

"We still get phone calls from people who want to come and play despite the danger. Some Israelis have even hidden in the trunks of Palestinian cars and tried to smuggle themselves in," said a security official, who like other casino staff spoke on the condition that they not be named. 

 

But for now, all bets are off and the Oasis's card tables and one arm bandits remain draped in plastic sheets until the guerrilla war in the West Bank and Gaza Strip abates to a point at which the games can go on.— (AFP)  

 

© Agence France Presse 2000  

© 2000 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)

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