In West Bank city, its tough to sell apartments

jerusalem | The billboards that greet drivers along the main road into Ariel — 25 miles east of Tel Aviv — offer low-interest rates and 20-year mortgages with 10 percent down payments.

According to Mayor Ron Nachman, there has never been a better time to live in Ariel. The city of 17,000 residents is at its peak of growth and development, with expectations to grow to 20,000 by 2005, given the majority of young couples and families living there.

Nevertheless, it’s tough to sell apartments in a city whose future is uncertain.

Ariel is in the West Bank, about 12 miles past the Green Line. The original plan was to include four settlements — Ariel, Kedumim, Karnei Shomron and Emmanuel — within the security fence. But that sparked threats of economic sanctions from the United States.

The Bush administration argued that the fence would be tantamount to a border and would complicate future negotiations with the Palestinians if it strays too much from the 1967 Green Line.

For now, the compromise could be to establish a separate security fence around Ariel, unlinked to the main security fence closer to the Green Line.

“We’re not going anywhere, and there have been no final decisions,” said Nachman, who was part of the original group that settled the city 25 years ago, and is known for his brash manner. “No one wants to leave this place.”

Real estate agent Rosa Sapozhnikov, who runs her own company in Ariel, said, “People hear about the ‘road map’ and the Geneva initiative, and then they see on TV that Ariel will be out of the security fence, and that’s the end of business for me. But it’s all just talk.”

These days, most of the new construction being sold in Ariel is located at the northern end of the city, near the College of Judea and Samaria.

There are four projects currently selling more than 200 apartments in Ariel, with additional buildings slated for future construction. Apartment prices range from $90,000 to $120,000 for three rooms with a porch to four rooms with a garden. Many of the new apartments still being sold were first built in 2000, at the start of the current intifada.

“It isn’t an easy time to sell here,” said Gil Sheffer, a marketing vice president for Loram, a government development company that built the four-building College Gardens complex in Ariel, and still has two more buildings to construct in the same neighborhood.

When Loram first began marketing College Gardens in early 2000, before the beginning of the current conflict, sales moved quickly, with young couples and immigrants making up the bulk of the buyers.

As the political situation worsened, sales slowed until former construction and Housing Minister Natan Sharansky stepped in with a grant, loan and interest-rate package for buyers purchasing homes in Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Negev, the Galilee and the Golan Heights. They were offered loans and grants at 4 percent interest for 25 years.

“That really sparked a wave of buyers,” Sheffer said.

“There was an explosion” of new buyers, said Sapozhnikov, who is one of the agents representing College Gardens in Ariel. But the sale ended on Dec. 10, and with the end of the grant package, she doesn’t expect to see any buyers. Even toward the end of the sale, Loram was making an average of only one sale a month.

“People don’t want to buy if they don’t know what will be,” according to Sapozhnikov, who moved to Ariel from Petach Tikva 14 years ago, after emigrating from Ukraine with her husband and two children. “You can’t really blame them.”

At the same time, there is a firm belief that Ariel is “here to stay,” and will remain on the Israeli side of the fence, said Michael Stoltz, vice president of development at the College of Judea and Samaria.

With 8,000 students — including 200 Israeli-Arab students, and 70 percent of the student population from central Israel and the greater Tel Aviv region — the college has its own reasons for wanting to make sure that Ariel stays put.

The College of Judea and Samaria — Israel’s largest, apart from the universities, according to Stoltz — was founded in 1982 in the nearby settlement of Kedumim, and was established to have an institution of higher learning in the West Bank. The college moved to a defunct technology park in Ariel in 1991, and is now the largest employer in the West Bank. It plans on increasing its student population to 20,000 by 2020.

“We have no plans to move anywhere,” said Stoltz.