JERICHO (Ma'an) -- To the south of Jericho, where the desert stretches off toward the rich blue of the Dead Sea, work is about to begin on a vast tourist and residential project.
"Jericho Gate" will lie across 3,000 dunams (740 acres) of land and comprise 1,500 villas and up to seven hotels. A water park is planned, along with a shopping complex and museum.
The project is being led by Munib al-Masri's Palestinian conglomerate Padico Holding, and is aiming for an enormous sum of $3 billion worth of investment by the time it is completed in 2024.
"People do not like this word 'entertainment'," says Samir Hulileh, the project's chair and CEO of Padico. "They feel that it is contradicting what occupation is all about."
But he adds: "There is no way that anyone can know when this conflict will end, and we believe it's a must that people should survive the conflict and survive the process until it ends. Survival does not mean that we just barely live."
Planning for Jericho Gate began in 2011, after Padico identified what they believed to be a huge gap in the market for hotels, restaurants, and most importantly, things to do "if you want to stay there for a whole day."
According to Hulileh, Jericho annually sees around 1 million Palestinian tourists, 1 million foreign tourists, as well as another 1.5 million crossing through to Jordan, "and you need to entertain them, to take care of them."
Planning was a lengthy process, not least due to concerns from Jericho's residents who feared the project would come to replace Jericho, serving as "a new city, that will feel like a new Dubai," as Hulileh puts it.
After three-and-a-half years of discussions and reassurances, however, the master plan came through intact.
It envisages a vast complex of hotels and villas centering around a plaza of artificial lakes and the eponymous Jericho Gate itself -- a structure equal in size to Paris' Arc de Triomphe, Hulileh says.
A promotional video released last year maps out the vision -- it shows smiling Palestinian families running through villas, leaping into swimming pools, barbecuing, doing yoga and taking manicures.
Sentimental piano music plays while the camera runs below Beverly Hills-style lines of palm trees, and a series of slogans materialize: "Your home away from home," "Quality family time," "Serenity at its best," and "The place for unforgettable days."
'Need people to believe'
Jericho Gate's central plaza is planned to host artificial lakes and an eponymous gate equal in size to Paris' Arc de Triomphe. (MaanImages/Killian Redden)
The outward picture is one of optimism, but the project still has a long way to go.
Work on infrastructure was supposed to begin early 2014, with the shopping center and water park beginning in the second half of the year.
But the land remains all but untouched -- across the stretch of desert, a small area has been leveled and a drainage ditch has been dug. Otherwise there's little to reflect the developers' ambitions.
Through its subsidiaries Paltel and the Palestine Real Estate Company, Padico itself is only contributing $150 million toward the project -- mostly on infrastructure, which will take two to three years to complete and is now due to begin in June.
It is hoped that the rest of the $3 billion will come from developing companies working in partnership with Padico.
So far, however, only six companies have signed on to build about 100 villas and a "boutique hotel." Hulileh says that Palestinian-American businessman Farouk Shami has expressed interest in working on the water park.
These companies will contribute around $35 million toward the project -- a far cry from the investment target.
Hulileh says "the mobilization process" for further developers will start after the infrastructure is in place in 2017.
"We need people to believe that we are doing the project, that we are very firm in following up this dream that we have," he says. "Then people will come and put down their money."
A solitary bulldozer at work on site. (MaanImages/Killian Redden)
However, problems are already looming. First and foremost, says Hulileh, is water.
An oasis on the banks of the river Jordan, Jericho should hold some of the largest water reservoirs in Palestine but the vast majority of its supply is being exploited by Israel.
"The issue is not a deficiency of water in Jericho, but whether the Israelis allow the project to dig the required wells," says Jericho's Mayor Muhammed Julaiteh.
According to Hulileh, the project has already dug four shallow wells on site, which will supply around 1 million cubic meters -- only enough for the next two to three years.
But in the long term, Hulileh admits, the project will have to turn to Israel.
"We have submitted a request through the Palestinian water authority to Israel, basically to buy some water from Mekorot," Israel's national water company, he says, adding that they may also request Israeli permission to dig a deep well on site.
"It is not an obstacle that will prevent the project from starting, but an obstacle that could prevent the project from flourishing."
The project will also require Israeli permission to build a new road. "If you want to accommodate one or two millions tourists," says Hulileh, "you need a main road that comes from the Jerusalem highway."
Three separate proposals have been submitted. Two were rejected outright, but "the third one, they said they're willing to look into."
Life in a 'prison'
Ahmed Abu Humur rarely sees more than one or two guests a week at the Jerusalem Hotel. (MaanImages/Killian Redden)
Beyond Israel's good will, there remains the more fundamental issue of demand.
In the wake of last year's devastating war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, as well as wider regional conflicts, foreign tourism has fallen sharply across the occupied Palestinian territories.
"We do not depend on one component," says Hulileh. "That's the beauty of the project. Local tourism, including Palestinians from Israel, are the pillars of the project. They can bring in 60 percent of the revenue. This is fine."
But even with tourism at normal levels, Jericho has never served as a great tourist destination.
Since Jericho became the first city to be handed over to the Palestinian Authority in 1994, hopes that the city would pave the way for the new Palestinian state have gone largely unfulfilled.
The city's economy remains in a dire state, and as for tourism, Jericho has only three hotels.
Ahmed Salieh Abu Humur, who has run one of these -- the Jerusalem Hotel -- for more than 20 years, says he has one or two guests a week, but never any tourists.
His hotel stands derelict, the letters fallen from the sign, the top floor nothing more than bare concrete where an extension was abandoned years ago.
"Every day more than 1,000 tourists come to Jericho," he says, "but they go to one place, one restaurant. They eat, they visit sites, then leave," returning to their hotels in Israel.
Abu Humur blames the Israeli occupation. "We live in a prison," he says. "We hope to see peace, but for 20 years we have had nothing."Creating profit
Padico is hoping to reinvent Jericho, to "change the environment around visiting Jericho completely," Hulileh says.
But Abu Humur's situation raises the important question as to what extent Jericho Gate will serve to normalize the occupation that has crippled the rest of the city for years.
The Palestinian real estate development Rawabi -- from which Hulileh says Jericho Gate drew inspiration -- came into sharp criticism for its dealings with Israeli companies, as well the use of Israeli construction materials.
Hulileh does not deny that Jericho Gate may follow a similar path, although he says that in principle, "we prefer to use material that is produced locally, for sure."
The project also denies that is catering exclusively for a richer Palestinian middle class, offering an escape from Palestinian realities that most cannot afford.
Jericho Gate's sales supervisor, Muhammad Abu Ghosh, says that working class Palestinians will be able to enjoy Jericho Gate's public spaces and stay in its three and four-star hotels -- "the people can afford paying for them -- they are cheap."
Hulileh, meanwhile, points to the employment construction will create, and stresses the importance of building the Palestinian economy.
"We need to be ready to compete when our state will be established. We need to be at the same level, at the same pace with our neighbors and with the region."
Ultimately, however, Hulileh seeks to separate the project from national ambitions.The main aim, he says, is profit.