U.S. Condemns Eviction of Arab Families From East Jerusalem

Embassy says replacement of Palestinian families with Jewish ones goes against spirit of road map.

The United States and the United Nations sharply condemned the eviction of two Palestinian families from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah and their replacement with Jewish families on Sunday.

Diplomats from the U.S. Embassy sent a protest letter to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, stressing the move went against the spirit of the road map. The diplomats said a high-level protest will be communicated to Israel later on Monday.

A large force of several hundred police officers evicted the two families from their homes in the early Sunday morning. Hours later the families' possessions were cleared from the homes and two Jewish families moved in.

The eviction came at the end of a long legal process. The families, Hannun and Gawi, say they are refugees from Palestinian neighborhoods in West Jerusalem who lost their homes in the War of Independence.

They were housed by the UN and the Jordanian authorities in East Jerusalem homes that previously belonged to a Sephardic community committee. Israeli courts acknowledged the committee's ownership of the houses, but provided a protected tenant status for the residents.

However, the committee, which supports the Jewish families' bid for the homes, had since claimed that the Palestinian families violated the agreement and demanded their eviction. Several families have been evicted over the years, the last - before Sunday - in November 2008. That family's protest tent was demolished during Sunday's eviction.

"They blew up the doors with small charges, walked in, and dragged us out like sacks," said Nasser Gawi. "We are 38 people in the family. Now the skies are our blanket and the earth is our bed."

His neighbor, Majhad Ganun, who was evicted with 16 members of his family, said the police came at 5 A.M.

"We were dragged out of our beds, and told to wait outside. They brought a truck and loaded everything we had on it. They took it somewhere, and didn't tell us where. I'm going to sleep on the pavement, we have no place to go."

Some of the Israeli and foreign activists who were staying with the families before the eviction were detained and released after a few hours.

UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said UN staff later saw vehicles bringing Jewish families to live in the homes.

Robert Serry, the United Nations envoy to the Middle East, criticized the eviction of the Palestinian families, saying "Israel's actions are unacceptable."

"I deplore today's totally unacceptable actions by Israel, in which Israeli security forces evicted Palestinian refugee families registered with UNRWA from their homes in the Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem to allow settlers to take possession of these properties," Serry said in a statement. "These actions are contrary to the provisions of the Geneva Conventions related to occupied territory. They also contravene the united calls of the international community, including the Quartet's, which in its recent statement urged the Government of Israel to refrain from provocative actions in East Jerusalem, including house demolitions and evictions. The UN rejects Israeli claims that this is a local matter dealt with by the courts." Serry added the move undermined efforts at reaching a peace deal.

The British consulate also issued a statement condemning the move, saying that the evacuation and other such moves come in contrast to Israel's declarations regarding its desire to achieve peace with the Palestinians. The British statement also called on Israel not to allow extremists to control the government's agenda.

The eviction was also slammed by the Jerusalem organization Ir Amim.

"Israel must consider the future implications of the move, which allows Jews to claim rights over property dating back to before 1948, but prevents the execution of the same rights by Palestinian residents. A re-opening of all ownership cases by Palestinians and Jews in Jerusalem could place Israel in an impossible situation in the city," a statement from Ir Amim said.