- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 16, 2005

JERICHO, West Bank — The sudden whirring of a slot machine pierces what had been four years of silence here at the Oasis Casino.

The casino, on the outskirts of Jericho, once was the biggest private employer in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But fighting that erupted in September 2000 soon forced the Oasis to close as Israel’s military sealed off towns like this.

Now, with a fragile truce taking hold and the transfer of security authority in Jericho to the Palestinians yesterday, the casino’s management is receiving inquiries from laid-off staff and former patrons about a reopening date.

Oasis manager Brett Anderson doesn’t have any answers.

“We’re entirely in someone else’s hands,” said Mr. Anderson, an employee of Casinos Austria, the Oasis’ management company. “It will be up to the governments.”

After weeks of delay and dispute, Israel’s military relinquished control of Jericho to Palestinian security forces. One of three roadblocks was dismantled, but Israeli soldiers still will control the exit to Jericho just a few hundred yards from the casino.

Jericho is the first of five West Bank towns to be returned to Palestinian authority. The withdrawals are meant to give Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas a chance to show he can fight militants effectively.

Talks on transferring authority in Jericho restarted this week. They were suspended after a terrorist bombing last month killed five persons on the Tel Aviv beachfront.

Even if the military opens its checkpoint down the road from the casino, the job prospects of 1,600 Palestinian staffers will depend on whether Israel lifts a ban on visits by its citizens to West Bank cities.

“I can say with confidence that an impoverished society on the doorstep of a prosperous society is very dangerous for the prosperous society and its security,” said Nigel Roberts, the representative of the World Bank in the West Bank and Gaza. “This is increasingly understood in Israel.”

Over the past four years, military checkpoints and blockades have made movement of goods and workers unpredictable in the Palestinian territories, forcing transportation costs to rise and wrecking the Palestinian economy.

Since the joint declaration of a truce in Israeli-Palestinian fighting in February, few if any roadblocks have been lifted, said the Israeli human rights watchdog B’Tselem.

“At the end of the day, people need to feel the change, not only through the media, but through their income,” said Iyad Judeh, former director of the Palestinian trade center, PalTrade.

Opened in 1998, the Oasis once attracted 3,000 patrons a night, most coming from Israel, where casinos are illegal.

Hazzem Hejazy used to work as a poker and blackjack dealer at the Oasis, earning a monthly salary of $1,000 plus tips. Working now in a barbershop in the town square, he is lucky to be employed, earning half his Oasis salary.

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