Hundreds of police officers entered the Negev Bedouin town of Rahat early Sunday morning and demolished a mosque that had been built about seven months ago without proper construction permits.

In response to the demolition, a one-day general strike of all city services, including education, was declared in Rahat for today.

More than 1,000 local residents converged on the site when the demolition began and hurled rocks at police officers, who were accompanying Israel Lands Administration supervisors. Police fired tear gas at the protesters, five of whom were arrested.

All religious items were removed from the building before the demolition began.

The mosque was built by activists from the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement. The demolition order was issued in April by Rahat Mayor Faiz Abu Sahiban and the Southern District Planning and Building Committee.

Abu Sahiban later became a major opponent of the demolition, which had led to mutual recriminations between the mayor and the people behind the mosque.

In the hours before the demolition began he attempted to prevent its execution, even standing in front of the bulldozers at one point in order to keep them from approaching the mosque.

Early yesterday morning Rahat residents began to rebuild the destroyed building.

"If they continue to destroy it, we will rebuild the mosque over and over again," said Yusuf Abu Jama, local leader of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement and one of the main figures behind the mosque's construction.

Abu Sahiban yesterday confirmed to Haaretz that the mosque was built on public property that had never been rezoned.

"At the time we asked the bodies responsible for building the mosque to wait for a few months, with the aim of rezoning the site, and even offered an alternative site, 150 meters away, but to my regret they rejected the offer," Abu Sahiban said.

Figures in the Islamic Movement's Northern Branch who were behind the mosque project rejected Abu Sahiban's criticism. They said the site for the mosque was selected deliberately: The idea was to build a mosque on a site that had been previously used for drug dealing and similar activities.

In July an appeal against the demolition order was rejected in Be'er Sheva District Court.

Yesterday the mayor said the demolition was a clear violation of the sensibilities of all Muslims.

"The police should act responsibly and use discretion, and should at least postpone the demolition until after the holiday," Abu Sahiban said, referring to Id al-Adha, the Muslim feast of the sacrifice, which will be celebrated next week.

"The mosque was built on Rahat city land, not on land belonging to the Israel Lands Administration, and as such the demolition was a flagrant violation of the agreement with the city of Rahat," Abu Sahiban said. "We have four mosques built without permits, so they can demolish them all."

Abu Sahiban said that after he changed his mind and began opposing the demolition he put his case to the planning authorities but was ignored.

Southern District Police began making plans for the demolition several weeks ago. Figures in the Islamic Movement warned recently that if the demolition went ahead it would be followed by riots in Rahat that might spread to other Arab communities.

A few weeks ago Southern District commander Yohanan Danino met with local council heads from Bedouin communities in the area in a bid to head off potential public unrest in the wake of the demolition.

"The mosque was born in crime and as a symbol of the radicalization and escalation of the members of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement within Rahat, as a flagrant challenge to the rule of law," Danino told the council heads. "If there is a need for an additional house of worship in the city, it should be built in accordance with the law."