Oasis Casino: gambling succeeds where peace fails
Palestine, Business, 9/23/1998
The drive from Jerusalem down to Jericho is not more than 25 minutes but it feels as if one is traveling to a totally different country.
The newly-opened Oasis Casino stands just opposite the Palestinian refugee camp of Aqabat Jaber. But on the map that details the route to the casino, the camp simply disappeared.
The first of its kind in Palestine, the casino has become the heavenly sanctuary of hundreds of Israeli bettors for whom gambling is a way of life. Soon after the official opening, scores of Israeli cars were driving down the Jericho road heading to the casino, whose presence only one hour from Tel Aviv will make it easier for thousands of Israelis, amateur and professional gamblers, to practice their beloved hobby and profession.
The investors, Palestinians and Austrians, decided to locate the casino in Jericho not only because of the symbolic importance of Jericho being the first city, along with Gaza, that was handed over to the Palestinians, but also because it is close to the crossing point to Jordan. The investors hope that Arab gamblers from Jordan and from the rest of the Arab world might come, cross the bridge, spend a day or two, gamble and go back home without having to go through numerous Israeli army roadblocks.
The casino, the outcome of a Palestinian and Austrian -- but not Israeli -- capital merger, caused controversy among the Palestinians even before it was opened. But once it started its operation, it has become a site of a significant cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli security. After eight months of stalled talks between the Palestinian government and Israel failed to achieve in the security sphere, joint security coordinating committees between the two sides have managed to maintain law and order in the casino.
Palestinians are not allowed into the casino, out of concern that gambling would ruin their social life. In Egypt, for instance, similar rules are applied and only tourists or foreigners holding non-Egyptian passports are allowed in Egyptian casinos. Here in Jericho, it is still not clear exactly who would be allowed in and who wouldn't. When asked about Palestinians living inside Israel, casino spokeswoman, Joanne Frenkel, said, "They are not Palestinians but Israeli Arabs and therefore have no problem to enter and gamble."
Inside the casino, no press photographers were allowed to take photos. When an Israeli still photographer snapped one shot of Khaled Salam, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's economic advisor and the man believed to be behind the casino idea, security personnel held him and confiscated his roll of film.
The managers of the casino were fully aware of gamblers' sensitivity, and made all media photographers leave the hall after 9:00 p.m. "We need to give our guests some privacy," said one of the managers.
One gambler put it more bluntly. "What if some of those present work for the income tax authority?"
But for some others, disguising is completely difficult. Their faces are very familiar like Menachem Damti, the driver of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. "I think that a casino like this can help make peace," he said.
Israeli female models, well known in their own society but not as famous as supermodel Claudia Schiffer, showed up to test their luck. Two of them walked around the gambling tables and slot machines and even won some money inside the mirrored building.
Schiffer canceled her scheduled appearance at the last minute. Many argued that the cancellation was prompted by the assassination of the two Hamas members, the Awadallah brothers. Those believe that Schiffer had security concerns. But Schiffer's sources said she was tied up with earlier committments that were suddenly extended.
Away from the glimmering opening celebration, Hamas officials were busy drafting a leaflet of their own attacking what they called the Casino of Satan, though some of the shareholders are prominent Palestinian officials, including Salam himself who is also a member of the Palestinian negotiating team with Israel on economic affairs. The casino is part of the leisure resort being built in the area, of which a Palestinian government-run commercial company led by Salam owns some 30 percent share. In 15 years, the resort area will return to Palestinian ownership.
Press commentators, such as Yousef Lapid are fond of drawing sarcastic comparisons between Jericho of today and that of 3,000 years ago when Israelites besieged the city and managed to storm it only after they sent in a Jewish prostitute by the name of Rahab to spy and collect data that would help the besieging army in its campaign.
In his article in the Israeli paper Maariv on Wednesday, Lapid said that the security cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli security apparatuses is bizarre, "with retired Palestinian terrorists guarding Israeli dice-throwers from Moslem zealots."
Lapid then wrote that, "Rahab the whore is laughing in her grave: Jericho has opened, 3000 years late, a casino. Its patrons will no longer have to scuttle around the city's dark alleys.... Joshua is also content. The trumpets heard at the opening ceremony knocked down the divides."
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