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French Version

Jericho looks to security handover to revive tourism

Oasis town devastated by intifada

The casino slot machines flash away but gamblers are nowhere in sight. After four years of violence and depression, businessmen hope Israelis will quickly return to Jericho and jumpstart tourism.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat, himself a Jericho resident, said Tuesday that the Palestinian Authority and Israel had reached an agreement in principle on the transfer of security control in the sleepy Jordan Valley town.

Such a deal could allow Israelis to return to the oasis town, four years after the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, broke out in September 2000.

"We've been ready to re-open for four years but the situation was not favorable," said Brett Anderson, general manager of the Oasis Casino.

"If Israelis are allowed back into Jericho, then business will start again," he added, calling himself "optimistic."

The 9,400-square-meter state-of-the-art Casino - a joint Austrian-Palestinian venture - opened to great fanfare in 1998 only to close one month after the intifada erupted.

On peak days, up to 3,000 gamblers packed its two large rooms and VIP lounge, staking their bets on baccarat, blackjack, roulette or craps.

But the intifada shattered the profitable business when Israeli citizens, accounting for almost all visitors, were barred by their government from entering Palestinian-controlled areas, although Jericho remained largely quiet.

The 2,000 plus staff members, 435 of them Palestinians, were made redundant, save for housekeeping and maintenance personnel.

"If Israel wishes to improve the economic situation of Palestinians, letting Israelis come back to Jericho is one sure quick way," said Anderson, who estimated he needed eight to 12 weeks to re-hire staff.

Anderson, who hails from New Zealand and spends his free time training on Jericho's sandy hills for a marathon back home, pointed out the above-average wages paid to Palestinian employees.

Ibrahim, a security guard who stayed on after the casino closed down, said he used to make $1,500 a month - more than three times the salary of a local civil servant.

"I used to be a dealer at the casino and made $1,200 a month. Now I'm happy if I can gather a mere $250," said Khalil Hasehm, waiting on four customers down the road in the Green Valley restaurant.

He also complained about the travel ban placed on Israelis, especially on Arab Israelis who used to patronize the restaurant at weekends.

"Jericho derives its income from tourism and agriculture, and both sectors have been devastated by army closures," he sighed.

"It's all the more unfair that our town has been completely quiet during the intifada," Hasehm added.

"I hope the army removes all the checkpoints, but even then it won't be enough if others are maintained farther up the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, and Ramallah and Jericho," piped up Ishaq Nusseibeh, a local trader.

"I planted lettuce and made no money because we can't trade with the outside world," he complained.

His efforts to sell satellite dishes also failed because "people have no money to spend."

Nusseibeh runs a small bar on the side but it attracts few customers. "A drink costs money too," he said.

"I'm not exactly sure of what Israel wants to hand over but if it means that tourists can come back, I'm all for it," said Riad Hamad, who manages the Jericho Resort, a large hotel complex with swimming pools and chalets.

"We won't feel any benefits until sometime next fall because it's already too late for the Easter season. Tour operators make bookings far in advance, he said."

"We have to hope for the best," he said, already preparing offers for Israeli tour operators.

Amman,02 21 2005
The Daily Star
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