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World Perspective | MIDDLE EAST

A Palace in Need of Guests

The Jacir, the first 5-star hotel in the Palestinian-held territories, is languishing--a casualty of the current uprising.

April 06, 2001|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — For months after fighting erupted between Israeli troops and Palestinians in the West Bank, the Jacir Palace, the first five-star hotel built in the Palestinian-controlled territories, struggled to stay alive.

The staff of the opulent hotel grew adept at herding guests to the basement bar, for protection whenever gun battles erupted at a holy site just down the street, or Israeli tank shells rained down nearby. After the guests stopped coming, the hotel's management kept on most of the 235 staff members, keeping them busy with maintenance projects.

But last month, the Palestine Tourism Investment Co., a group of private, mostly Palestinian investors that owns the hotel, decided to cut its losses. With no end to the fighting in sight, the Jacir Palace closed its doors and fired all but a skeleton crew.

Now the elegant building, which for a brief time served as a meeting place for Israelis, Palestinians and foreigners, sits silent behind locked gates on the main road between Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

Its closing is a poignant symbol of how a 6-month-old uprising that has claimed more than 450 lives has crushed hope here. The Jacir Palace was built in the belief that peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians were leading to the birth of a Palestinian state and an era of reconciliation that would bring floods of tourists and businesspeople to the Holy Land.

Just before the hostilities erupted, Israeli journalist Hirsch Goodman wrote in the Jerusalem Report magazine about an evening he and his son had spent playing pool with a pair of Palestinians they had met at the Jacir's bar. Goodman wrote that he thought the evening illustrated how peace was taking hold in both societies.

"We had a great evening," Goodman wrote. "They felt good. The wonderful facility we were enjoying was part Palestinian-owned. Outside, the Palestinian flag flew proudly. In the bar next door was an amiable mixture of Palestinians, Israelis, guests of the hotel. We drank Scotch, they drank Taibeh beer, we shared some finger food and hardly discussed politics at all."

Today, it is hard to find anyone who believes that the vision of peace Goodman thought he was seeing will be realized any time soon. The forlorn state of the hotel today seems eloquent testimony to the failure of the peace process.

Protective plastic runners cover the plush carpeting of its halls. Rust stains have spread across the ceiling and walls of the ornate restored stone mansion that serves as the reception hall, evidence of a leak in the roof. Dust covers shroud the imported furniture, and the gargantuan pool out back is drained.

Resident Manager Kees Heuveling said the decision to close the hotel's doors was a painful one.

"Sixty million dollars was invested in this project," Heuveling said. "It was built to be an example for all of Palestine--the first five-star hotel that operated on international standards of excellence."

When the hotel opened in May, he said, it became Bethlehem's biggest employer, and it had plans to eventually increase the staff to 300.

For months, Heuveling said, he kept 193 employees on the books, even though most only worked a few hours a week. Now he has reduced the staff to 50. Many of the others have been dispatched to other Middle Eastern Inter-Continental hotels.

Just two weeks before fighting broke out, the 250-room hotel was fully booked. Heuveling thought that the Jacir could compete with any hotel in nearby Israeli-controlled Jerusalem.

He still requires staffers to wear freshly ironed uniforms to work, to keep their hair neatly trimmed and to show up on time every day. Once the fighting stops, Heuveling said, he intends to reopen as quickly as possible.

"We don't have time to have broken hearts. We must be managers," he said. "We're still setting standards here."

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