ARIEL, Israeli-Occupied West Bank — When Ron Nachman sees the empty apartments on the edge of this Jewish settlement, he imagines young families arriving soon with children, pets and possessions.
Nachman, mayor of the town of 15,000, smiles as he envisions the scene. Each family that moves here is a "political fact," he declares--another block to the creation of a Palestinian state in the region that he calls Judea and Samaria, the biblical name for the West Bank.
He expressed special pleasure Monday at the weekend decision by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to let 3,000 new apartments be sold in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including the 140 $70,000-$90,000 units still vacant in Ariel.
"It's a very good day," Nachman said, waving toward the units just behind him. "We need to come to a critical mass here so no one can move us. . . . The more people who come to live here, the more they strengthen the economic basis of the town and create political facts."
The weekend action was an early, concrete step by Netanyahu to keep his campaign promise to increase the number of settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, territories seized by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.
The apartments, in communities throughout the West Bank and Gaza, were completed years ago. But Israel's Labor government, defeated by the right-wing Netanyahu in May, had blocked their sale. Netanyahu's Cabinet voted in August to ease the restrictions. A government spokesman said "technical problems" had held up sales until Netanyahu's weekend decision.
Some tenants were unwilling to wait. A spokesman for the Ministry of Construction and Housing said 45% of the apartments have been occupied by squatters, who will now be allowed to buy them.
Palestinians and the Israeli opposition denounced the decision as a violation of the peace process, which leaves sensitive issues such as the status of Jerusalem and Jewish settlements for final negotiations. The Clinton administration also has said it considers the settlements to be obstacles to peace.
Yossi Sarid, a member of the Israeli parliament from the leftist Meretz party, said the timing of the government action was a mistake, coming as it did in the midst of delicate negotiations with the Palestinians over an Israeli troop withdrawal from the West Bank city of Hebron.
"The prime minister has a special talent [for] making bad decisions with very bad timing," Sarid said.
There are more than 140 settlements in the two territories, with a population of about 145,000. And while many residents live in these communities for religious or ideological reasons, others say their motives are economic: Housing tends to be much cheaper than in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.
On Monday, several settler leaders praised the government action but described it as a ploy to appease them as the government inches toward an agreement on Hebron. The settlers oppose an Israeli redeployment from the city.
"Any little thing that happens in a positive direction is good," said Aliza Herbst, a spokeswoman for the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, an umbrella group for the settler movement. "But I think it's clear this is to humor us while the government is making some pretty disastrous decisions on Hebron."
The Israeli withdrawal from Hebron, the last West Bank city under occupation, has proved the most sensitive issue in three years of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. The previous government had agreed to a March pullback but postponed it after a series of suicide bombings in Israel by Muslim extremists. Netanyahu has since sought to strengthen security provisions for the 450 Jewish settlers in Hebron, a city of about 100,000.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met again late Monday. But hopes for an agreement dimmed with the departure of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat for a long-planned trip to Europe. The U.S. Middle East peace coordinator, Dennis Ross, said he would leave today to consult in Washington with Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Still, negotiators said they would keep working toward an accord, the need for which was evident Monday with reports of violence between Jews and Arabs in the West Bank.
In the most serious incident, a 10-year-old Palestinian boy died early Monday after a rock-throwing incident near a Jewish settlement outside the town of Bethlehem. A security guard for the Hadar Beitar settlement was arrested in connection with the death, police said. And two settlers were arrested in Hebron, apparently for firing weapons near the Cave of the Patriarchs, a site sacred to both Arabs and Jews.