Jericho -- Ancient 'city of palm trees'

symbolizes a failed policy

In the wake of her recent unsuccessful effort to jump start peace negotiations between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton must be wondering how much additional violence will be required before serious peace talk can happen.

The protracted negotiations which have commenced in fits and starts over the past several presidential administrations involve a wide range of issues including new settlement construction in the West Bank, and ultimately, the destiny of Jerusalem as a population center and the historic point of reference for three major religious faiths.

However, one issue not discussed much by leaders in the Middle East is the fate of ancient Jericho, a small hamlet of some 17,000 residents, approximately 25 miles east of Jerusalem. The recent history of this small, struggling village is a case study in failed urban renewal efforts, Palestinian style.

I was among a group from The Cathedral, an Evansville church, who recently saw first hand the consequences of disastrous decision making


Drawing of the Oasis Hotel & Casino eclipsed by a Bedoin leading a camel in the fore ground.

Jericho, referred to in the Hebrew Bible as the "City of Palm Trees" due to the presence of numerous fresh water springs in the region, is thought to be one of the lowest permanently inhabited locations on earth and recent archaeological excavations have unearth the remains of over 20 successive settlements dating back over 11,000 years. Surrounded by enormous date palm, banana and citrus plantations, in Biblical times it was the first inhabited area encountered by the Jewish people who had returned to the promised land with Moses.

As one of the terms of the Oslo Accords, a milestone peace agreement negotiated between Israel and representatives of the Palestinian people concluded in 1993, Israel agreed to withdraw from several of the occupied territories including the region surrounding Jericho. In return the Israeli government agreed to several economic concessions. Then-Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat pushed for the construction of a glitzy, glamorous $50 million hotel gambling casino complex destined to generate millions in revenue for the cash-strapped, fledging Palestinian Authority.

Since all forms of gambling are illegal throughout Israel, it was thought that this gilded palace of slot machines, black jack and roulette tables would generate substantial income for a few local residents and be a significant tourist attraction for the local economy.

First opened to great international fanfare in 1998, the Oasis Casino operated as a joint venture between the Palestinian Authority and Casino Austria, a company controlled by Austrian billionaire Martin Schlaff. Somewhat of a celebrity in Israel at the time, Schlaff, is the descendant of Jewish refugees from World War II. He was earlier identified to have communist intelligence contacts with Eastern Bloc countries, and business dealings within Austria, East Germany and with Soviet officials including a friendship with former Russian Premier Vladimir Putin.

As expected, the Oasis Casino made a big hit with thousands of Israelis. On any given Shabbat (Friday, the Jewish Sabbath) a parade of as many as 5,000 eager gamblers a large percentage of them Orthodox Jews would flock to the new casino from Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities.

Oddly enough, the Arabic residents of Jericho were banned from the facility by the Palestinian Authority, not that it would have mattered much. Many residents of Jericho found the casino appalling a gaudy, modern affront to their religious teachings.

The casino generated more than $1 million in revenue daily it garnered some $54 million in profits during 1999 alone but like so many other things in the Middle East, financial success was not enduring. When violence broke out during the second Palestinian Intefada in late-2000, several Arab terrorist used the roof of the Oasis Casino to project automatic weapons fire onto Israeli Defense Force (IDF) troops approaching Jericho. The IDF forces retaliated by firing a tank round into the side of the building forcing the terrorists to flee. Alas, the Oasis was closed.

After the violence subsided, the casino was repaired and many of the former employees hoped it would reopen. But, as you might expect, that was not to be.

In recent years, Haaretz, the oldest news service in the Middle East has been investigating Schlaff for bribing several members of the previous Israeli administration.

In recent years, the casino hotel - not to mention Jericho has languished, surrounded by a chain-link fence directly across the road from a hard-scrapple refugee camp. Since Israeli nationals are currently banned from traveling throughout the occupied territories, Israeli tour groups no longer visit Jericho and its residents continue to suffer accordingly.

But our group did visit Jericho. There, I saw elderly men sitting in bars, sipping tea and smoking hookah pipes as tourists dined in a nearby restaurant or browsed a nearby souvenir shop, seeking glass and ceramic wares.

Elsewhere, is the sycamore tree where locals say the tax collector Zacchaeus encountered Jesus Christ during his visit there. For a few sheckles, young men invited tourists to pose beneath the tree wearing the traditional Palestinian kaffiyeh headdress similar to that worn by Arafat and other Palestinian leaders.

Although many residents receive modest wages in the nearby fruit plantations, their earnings are nowhere near those realized by casino employees during the brief period Oasis was in operation.

Today, as Palestinian and Israeli officials continue their scorpion's dance of on-again-off-again peace negotiations, the haunting, modern, high-rise apparition of the Oasis Casino on the outskirts of ancient Jericho stands as a monument to the broken dreams of a failed Palestinian leader.

David Coker of Evansville is a freelance writer