One day last month, when rumours spread that the military barricades were coming down and the casino was ready, dozens of Israelis jumped into their cars and sped to Jericho, hoping to play some blackjack again in the Middle East's largest luxury casino.
But the rumour was false. The Israeli army wouldn't let gamblers beyond the city's outskirts. Still, up to 30 Israelis phone the Oasis Casino every day to ask the same questions: Should they brave West Bank roads yet? Can they get inside Jericho? And, is the repair work done and the casino reopening?
At its peak a year ago, as many as 7,000 gamblers a day flocked to the glitzy establishment, most of them Israelis. The casino employed about 1,700 Palestinians at an average salary of $1,000 (all figures U.S.) a month -- a princely sum in the impoverished West Bank. It was a lucrative money-spinner for Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, which holds a 30-per-cent stake.
When the Palestinian intifada (uprising) began in September, deadly gunfights erupted on the edge of Jericho and Israeli army barricades went up. Still, some Israelis with money burning a hole in their pockets tried desperately to sneak past. Some were discovered in the trunks of Palestinian taxis, others trudged for several kilometres, arriving at the casino caked in dust.
They stopped only when Israeli bullets and missiles smashed into the casino walls, forcing it to close. Now, Jericho -- reputedly the oldest permanently settled place on Earth at as much as 10,000 years old -- is suffering.
"You can go to paradise or to hell, but you cannot go to Jericho," said Mazher Abbas, a 25-year-old electrical engineer, as he surveyed the cable-car operation leading up to the nearby Mount of Temptations, where the Bible says Satan tempted Jesus.
"Jericho and Bethlehem were the best places in all of the Palestinian region, but now they are completely closed. It's terrible."
The $150-million casino and hotel complex, founded by Palestinian and Austrian investors in 1998, was the largest private employer in the West Bank. Its closing is the highest-profile example of the damage done to the local economy by the latest fighting; experts say the Palestinian territories have lost about $3-billion since the uprising began. The unemployment rate is 50 per cent.
Jerusalem is just 30 minutes away by car, yet Jericho cannot do business with Israel because it is sealed off by the army barricades. Tourist sites and restaurants are empty. Vegetables rot in the fields because prices are too low to make them worth harvesting.
The city, an oasis of warm weather and relatively moderate politics in the farmland of the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea, had dreams not long ago of becoming a tourist boomtown during millennial celebrations.
Palestinian investors opened the $10-million cable car in 1999, hoping to cash in. It was attracting 1,500 customers a day before the fighting. But today the cable-car business is closed, its two restaurants and eight souvenir shops are shut and its 50 employees have lost their jobs. The parking lot is empty, except for an occasional flock of sheep.
Israel views the barricades -- not uncommon across the West Bank -- as a natural response to the outburst of Palestinian violence. But Palestinians say such pressure tactics will not weaken their will to cast off Israeli occupation.
"The Israelis want to hurt us and make us starve," Mr. Abbas said. "But we will be patient, and we will not stop our struggle. We will have our state."
For a car with Israeli licence plates, a trek into Jericho is an exercise in frustration. Cars are turned back at every Israeli checkpoint around the city. Each of the five paved roads is blocked. Israel sternly warns its citizens to stay away from the West Bank, especially after three Israelis were killed by Palestinians last month.
Israeli army bulldozers have dug trenches and piled mounds of dirt around Jericho, surrounding the city with earthen walls -- a strange echo of the biblical story of the walls of Jericho and the siege by the Israelites.
Any Israelis determined to enter the city of about 15,000 Palestinians must search for a back road. On a recent visit, a driver found a bumpy dirt path that led over a ditch, through a tomato field and eventually around a series of checkpoints with rifle-wielding Palestinian police officers.
At the peak of the intifada in October and November, the casino and hotel were hit by dozens of Israeli machine-gun bullets, as many as 10 grenades, and at least one missile from a helicopter or tank. The damage to the complex has cost $1.5-million to repair.
The Israeli army said it fired at the casino because Palestinian snipers were using it as a base to shoot at the Israelis. The casino denies that, saying its 500 surveillance cameras found no sign of snipers on its property.
"There was no reason for shooting at us," general manager Alexander Tucek said. "We found no evidence of any shooting from inside our complex. We were victims of circumstance. We were caught in the middle of a conflict."
Today, the bullet holes have been patched up, the walls are repaired. The casino is ready to reopen at a moment's notice, if the blockade is lifted. Then, the flood of Israelis is certain to return, even if violence in other parts of the West Bank continues.
"Jericho was a booming town, and now all the new businesses have closed," Mr. Tucek said. "It's painful for all of us."
Near the casino, the Dolphin restaurant sits empty, every window smashed. The 181-room Hotel Inter-Continental is also empty.
Before the uprising, up to 15 tour buses would arrive daily at Hisham's Palace, an ancient Islamic site. Now, an entire day can pass without a visitor.
"We want the intifada to be over, but we also want our land back," Salim Barahma, a ticket seller at the palace, said. "What can we do?"