Jericho opens a casino of biblical proportions opens desert

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The Independent Online
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.

Casinos Austria, a state corporation that operates more than 100 casinos worldwide, is investing $150m in the project, which will eventually include a hotel, golf and tennis. "We are going to make a lot of money here," said the founding director-general, Alexander Tucek.

Construction began last year and the German project manager, Daniel Bahr, is confident that the first stage will be finished in time for the scheduled opening on 15 September.

The Jericho casino is just inside Palestinian Authority territory, but is easily accessible to the many frustrated Israeli gamblers who are barred from a legal flutter in their own country. Until recently, they mostly flocked by the planeload to the gaming rooms of Turkey, but Ankara has succumbed to Islamic pressure and stopped the roulette wheels.

The Muslims of Jericho, a shabby, fly-blown oasis 285 metres 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," insisted 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 favour, but we are not against."

Sheikh Ismail al-Jamal, who presides over the oldest mosque in the world's oldest inhabited city, is emphatically against it. "It is forbidden by our religion," he said. "We don't want a casino in our society. It will bring a lot of bad things: gambling, alcohol, striptease."

The town council spokesman estimated that Jericho's 20,000 Arabs were split evenly, for and against. The mayor, Abdel Karim Sidder, is hedging his bets. "If the casino causes a lot of problems, it will not be difficult to stop it in one or two years," he said.

Daniel Bahr discounts religious resistance. "In Jericho, the fundamentalists are not in the driving seat," he argued. "The people here want to develop their country. The Palestinians will get income from taxes, wages and the tourist spill-over into the city."

About 70 per cent of the 400 Palestinians working on the site come from the dusty, sprawling Aqabal Jabr refugee camp across the main road. 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 Palestinians trained on site.

"Let's wait till the casino opens and people understand what it's really about," Sheikh al-Jamal retorted. "Then we'll see. Jericho is a very religious 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 is to make people aware this is wrong," said the preacher, sitting beneath a watchful poster of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. "We will tell them not to touch anything that is forbidden by our religion. We'll urge people not to work at the casino. We won't use force.

"We've already had people who applied for jobs and then backed out when they found out what was involved. Others stayed because they needed the work but gave false names."

From the start, Mr Arafat's government has banned Palestinians from the gaming tables. So the promoters of the casino are targeting Israelis, Gulf Arabs and sun-seeking Europeans. Jericho is half an hour by car from Jerusalem, an hour and a half from Tel-Aviv, and five minutes from the Allenby Bridge which links the West Bank to Jordan.

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 place safe from Hamas suicide bombers.

"If somebody really wants to do it," Mr Bahr admitted, "they can sit on a hill over there and fire a rocket into the casino. But I don't think they will."