(In part 1 of this series, I detailed how my wife and I ended up in the old Hyundai of a well-meaning Palestinian tour guide, driving towards the ancient town of Jericho. Jericho is in Area “A” of the Palestinian territories, under the control of the Palestinian Authority. We have passed the red signs on the road, containing the Israeli warning that we are entering territory “dangerous to your lives.”)
Shortly past the red signs on the road to Jericho is a twelve-story Intercontinental Hotel, rising improbably from our bleak desert surroundings. The hotel is the tallest building for miles around. From the tour company’s web site, I understood that the hotel would be a featured talking point on the tour, but Assaf merely points out the hotel as we drive by. So it falls to me to talk about it here.
The Intercontinental Hotel and its associated Oasis Casino are together the largest private investment project to date in the Palestinian territories. The concept for the hotel-casino was hatched by Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1993. The PA projected that Israelis would flock to a casino conveniently located within a short drive from Jerusalem (Israel bars gambling within its national borders, except for its national lottery). The PA shrewdly located the new casino just inside the Jericho border, far from the center of Jericho, so that Israelis wouldn’t feel that they’d have to venture far into Palestinian territory in order to place their bets. The location was also intended to blunt the objections of Moslems living in Jericho (Islam, like traditional Judaism, condemns any form of gambling). The money generated by the hotel-casino was supposed to help fund the kind of development that Palestine really needed (and arguably should have been built instead of the casino) – projects like housing, highways, and electric and water plants.
The casino-hotel attracted investors from Israel, Palestine and Jordan. Construction took five years. The casino opened its doors in 1998, and the hotel shortly after, in 2000. For a while, the PA’s plan seemed to be working, as the casino reportedly grossed an average of $1 million a day from thousands of Israeli gamblers (Palestinians were barred from the casino by the PA).
But the casino never seemed to generate money for other kinds of infrastructure development. Instead, rumors flew that Arafat and his cronies used the casino for “money laundering.” During Arafat’s reign as head of the PA, corruption was rampant — this is not merely the opinion of Arafat’s many detractors. It is also the conclusion of Salam Fayyad, a former World Bank official who was also Arafat’s Finance Minister. “There is corruption out there,” Fayyad indicated back in 2003, referring to the PA. ”There is abuse. There is impropriety.”
It does not seem to be a matter of opinion. Arafat misused his position as Chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and later as President of the PA, to amass a personal fortune. Forbes once listed Arafat as the sixth wealthiest ruler on Earth, just behind England’s Queen Elizabeth, but it appears that Forbes badly underestimated Arafat’s wealth, totaling it “only” in the hundreds of millions. According to an accounting team hired by the PA while Arafat was still in power, Arafat controlled nearly a billion dollars in a single portfolio. Other sources estimate Arafat’s wealth at $3 billion, or more. All of this money came from taxes and other public sources, or from foreign aid.
The Oasis Casino must have provided Arafat with some of his wealth, but only a small part of it, because the casino had a short life. The Second Intifada broke out in 2000, at which time the hotel was reportedly occupied by Palestinian fighters who used its “high ground” to fire on Israeli forces. The casino closed during this fighting, and it’s unlikely ever to reopen. Israelis are barred from Area “A,” and Hamas vows never to permit gambling to resume in the West Bank (even threatening to turn Jericho’s closed casino into a mosque!). But practical considerations have not prevented the casino’s management from doing all it can to reopen. Rumors abound that the casino has bribed Israeli and Palestinian officials – including former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon – in a failed effort to resume its gambling operations.
In the meantime, the hotel continues somehow to operate. As we drive by, I see no traffic in and out of the hotel, and no cars in its parking lot. Reviews of the hotel report just a handful of guests staying there. One journalist recently visited the hotel’s lobby and described it as empty “save for a lone tourist rushing through wrapped in a towel.” Honestly, it’s hard to figure why anyone would want to stay there. The hotel is in the middle of nowhere. The closest site of interest is the Aqabat Jaber refugee camp, hardly a tourist magnet. The hotel lies a considerable distance from central Jericho and its historic sights – you’d need a car to get from the hotel to town, and as long as you’re driving to Jericho … why not drive from someplace more agreeable, like Jerusalem?
When we drive into Jericho, it’s obvious how the PA’s plan for the hotel and casino has failed miserably. Jericho was the first city after the Oslo Accords to be governed by the PA, and it has been remained under Palestinian governance for over 20 years. Yet as we enter Jericho, we see no new infrastructure, save for a large police academy and larger prison. The only school we see is run by the U.N. Until a Japanese-funded solar project is completed, Jericho depends on Israel for its electricity. We see garbage thrown just about everywhere. Assaf tells us that half the population is employed in agriculture, with another 10% each employed by the government and “in tourism.” The remaining 30% is unemployed. And as we tour Jericho, it seems that the 30% is an understatement.
For certain, the development of Jericho has been held back by Israeli control of Area “C,” which surrounds Jericho on all sides, and restricts the potential flow of tourists and agricultural goods. But Jericho cannot blame all of its problems on Israel. Not when 37% of its population has received no education whatsoever. Not when half of its population lives in refugee camps, described in one report as among “the oldest existing refugee camps in the world.”
But perhaps the hotel is not a total failure. Last month, PA President Mahmoud Abbas held a “mass wedding” in the hotel’s parking lot for 218 Palestinian couples, and paid a reported $4,000 in “startup money” to each married couple. At least one of the married couples planned to use their $4,000 to buy furniture for an “apartment” the groom had built on top of his family’s home in the Aqabat Jaber refugee camp.
Such is what qualifies as “public services” in the Palestinian territories.
The hotel is on our tour. The tour’s web site touts the hotel as “a monument of dirty politics,” and as “a contrast to the other sights that you will visit during a Jericho tour.” But our driver passes the hotel with barely a comment. It is not part of the story he wants to tell us about Jericho.
(Keep tuned to this space for more about our adventures in Jericho and the Palestinian Territories!)