A new Israeli wonderland, where you can almost forget where you are

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MAALE ADUMIM, West Bank – There’s a sprawling indoor amusement park that looks like an alien spaceship stranded in the Judean Desert and nearby a luxury shopping mall rising incongruously in the style of the Renaissance Italian in the beige hills east of Jerusalem. Its large plaza features expensive kosher restaurants, a miniature canal with toy gondolas, and an artificial sky set to romantic twilight, even at lunchtime.

“Nothing in Israel compares to this,” said Pnina Revach, general manager of the mall, which specializes in home design and has an attached boutique hotel.

There is a wrinkle.

Israeli public relations gurus compare the growing shopping and entertainment center, Park Israel, which opened about three months ago, to attractions in Las Vegas, Dubai and Orlando. But as they call on the Israelis to visit, they are vague as to exactly where he is. One ad suggested simply entering the mall’s name, DCITY, into a browser app.

However, the approximately 20-minute drive to central Jerusalem is a gift. As one exits a tunnel under the Mount of Olives, the view is dominated by the high-rise Palestinian suburbs of Al Azariya and Al Zayyem. The Bedouins graze herds on the slopes. And the exit to the amusement park and shopping center is just beyond a military base.

Like their counterparts around the world, the shiny resorts are meant to make you forget where you are, and maybe even more so since they’re not in Nevada or Florida – or even Israel proper.

They are instead found in the hitherto lackluster industrial area of ​​a sprawling Jewish settlement, Maale Adumim, in the occupied West Bank.

The developers hope to turn a geopolitical hotspot into a hot ticket.

“Everyone stands in the middle of the square and says, ‘Wow! ”, Said Ms. Revach.

More than half a century after Israel took the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 war, most countries around the world view the increasingly entrenched settlement project as a violation of international law. But with long-stalled peace talks, the new attractions are just the latest – if not the most surreal – illustration of the growing complexity on the ground and the fading prospects of a resolution to the conflict through a Palestinian state. independent alongside Israel. .

For Palestinians, the area is a critical segment of the north-south corridor of any future viable and contiguous Palestinian state. Long-standing Israeli plans to expand Maale Adumim towards Jerusalem have so far been blocked by international pressure on the grounds that development would effectively divide any Palestinian state into two halves linked only by highways.

Israel also considers Maale Adumim, a dormitory community of about 40,000 people, to be of strategic importance. It dominates the heights between Jerusalem and the border with Jordan, and most Israelis assume it will remain in their hands as part of a land swap with the Palestinians in any future peace deal.

The lines became more blurry when Maale Adumim’s council recently changed the name of the former industrial area known as Mishor Adumim to a commercial and entertainment space. A few years ago, a SodaStream factory based there became a target for pro-Palestinian boycott activists and has since relocated to southern Israel.

Now the area is called Park Israel.

The shopping center and amusement park, known as Magic Kass, is the brainchild of Hanoch Kass, owner of Kass Group, a real estate and land development company. An ultra-Orthodox Jew, Mr. Kass, 38, lives in another settlement in the greater Jerusalem area.

But his associates avoid talking about politics and insist that the industrial park was chosen for purely commercial reasons, and not out of ideology or nationalism.

Advertisements for the resort not only fail to say that it is in the West Bank. They also make no mention of Judea and Samaria, the region’s biblical names used by the Israeli right-wing and, increasingly, by the Hebrew government and media.

The amusement park, enclosed in a giant metallic globe, is a world unto itself, tapping into contemporary youth culture and relying heavily on collaborations with influencers and social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok. The developers have three more covered theme parks in the works nearby, including go-karting and water rides.

The concept, according to Karin Larom, Managing Director of Magic Kass, is to entice people to spend a few days vacation at the resort. Its location in the West Bank is irrelevant to many Israelis and Palestinians, she argued.

“There is a reality – you can’t ignore it,” she said. “There will always be extremes on either side. Most people are in the middle. They want a quiet life and to earn a living.

As if to illustrate this point, one recent morning the three-story fairground was filled with 1,500 young Palestinians, mostly boys, on an outing from four schools in Israel annexed East Jerusalem. Seemingly oblivious to geopolitics, the middle school students howled in fear and delight as they plunged into the Sky Tower and hurtled down the Extreme 360-degree Looper.

“Most parents want their kids to have more fun than anything else,” said Imad Karain, the trip organizer for one of the schools.

Mr Karain said he had not received any complaints, although he acknowledged some unease about being in a settlement. Of parents, he said, “They don’t care much about politics. We want to live in peace and bring up our children in peace. We believe in coexistence and negotiations to solve the problem.

“Enough of war and violence,” said Muhammad Baidun, an English teacher.

The next day, Magic Kass was booked by a yeshiva of ultra-Orthodox Jewish boys. And when the doors opened to the public in the late afternoon, the line was a mix of religious and secular, Jews and Arabs.

While Palestinians in Jerusalem can come and go as they please, however, those in the West Bank need a government permit to enter the settlement. It was not clear if they could get one to visit the attractions. The management and several Israeli officials said they did not know what the procedure was.

For residents of the West Bank, the policy makes the entire complex an example of the two-tier legal system in the occupied territory that critics increasingly describe as a kind of apartheid.

“No park can beautify apartheid,” said Ahmad Majdalani, Minister of Social Development for the Palestinian Authority, the autonomous body that exercises limited control in parts of the West Bank. Park Israel, he said, was “an attempt to normalize an ongoing process of annexation of the occupied Palestinian territory.”

To complicate the picture, however, Maale Adumim and Park Israel currently provide jobs for around 5,000 Palestinians and a similar number of Jews, including cleaning and maintenance staff and managers. Palestinian workers in the West Bank have permits, but most must leave their cars in front of a security fence at the entrance to the park.

“I wish we could cancel this, but unfortunately we cannot because there are still people who engage in terrorism,” Guy Yifrach, deputy mayor of Maale Adumim, said of the permit system.

Distinguishing between “legal definitions and life itself”, he described Maale Adumim as a model of “practical coexistence”.

Many do not see coexistence but non-stop cooptation.

A short drive from the settlement is the tiny Bedouin community of Khan al Ahmar, a cluster of dusty shacks and a school long threatened with demolition, connected neither to the electricity grid nor to water pipes.

“They take slices of land for this and for that, like cheese,” said Eid Khamis Jahalin, the community leader. “The whole industrial area is not legal and they are taking pasture from the Bedouins. Why didn’t they build it, say, in Beer Sheva or Hadera or Tel Aviv?

The developers behind Park Israel are betting its appeal will win out.

In the Golden Square, in front of an upscale gift shop owned by a Palestinian from East Jerusalem, a Hasidic couple, David and Rivka Kahana, were walking with their toddler, their faces covered in chocolate ice cream.

“We are in shock,” Ms. Kahana said, observing the surroundings.

“So many stores in one place,” Mr. Kahana marveled. “I didn’t know something like this existed in the world.”

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