Israeli forces began Monday demolishing buildings in an East Jerusalem neighborhood under the control of the Palestinian Authority, following a legal challenge to the Defense Ministry-issued order to evacuate apartments deemed too close to the West Bank separation barrier, which runs through the city.
Israeli and international activists said Israeli forces deployed in the neighborhood at dawn, evacuating one family from one of the buildings, as well as activists who protested the move.
Two hours prior to the demolition, activists say they saw Israel Defense Forces' soldiers placing explosives in an eight-stories building set for demolition. Later, the forces removed furniture and vehicles that were parked next to the buildings.
Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher for the left-wing Ir Amim organization, blasted the move, saying: "In the name of the demographic war waged against East Jerusalem residents, the State of Israel is withholding approval of construction plans allowing those residents to legally build within the city.
"Residents who didn't want to build without a permit, sought a creative solution and were granted construction permits from the Palestinian Authority to build in areas and A and B where Israel doesn't have any authority concerning construction plans. The Israeli insistence to prevent this solution is a very cruel act," Tatarsky added.
"I built this house stone by stone. It was my dream to live in this house. Now I am losing everything," said Fadi al-Wahash, 37, his voice breaking as a bulldozer destroyed his unfinished three-floor house.
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"I had a permit to build from the Palestinian Authority. I thought I was doing the right thing," he said.
Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said 700 police and 200 soldiers were involved.
"Despite an order from the military commander, the residents there are making their own law, building. There are hundreds of illegal structures," he told Israel's Army Radio.
"To my regret there is no sufficient governance there. But it is not just that there are hundreds of structures there -- several dozens of them sit almost on the route of the separation fence, endangering the security forces that operate there."
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said the Palestinians would complain to the International Criminal Court about the demolitions in Sur Baher.
"The cabinet condemns this grave aggression. This is a continuation of the forced displacement of the people of Jerusalem from their homes and lands -- a war crime and a crime against humanity," Shtayyeh said.
The United Nations and France also issued condemnations of the demolition.
In June, Israel's High Court of Justice has ruled in favor of the demolition of 13 large buildings in the Wadi Hummus neighborhood, located on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
It is on the edge of the Palestinian village of Sur Baher, in southeast Jerusalem. Unlike the rest of the village, this neighborhood lies beyond the city’s municipal boundaries, in the West Bank. Most of the area it occupies is designated as part of Area A – i.e., under the control of the Palestinian Authority.
Sur Baher residents say Wadi Hummus is the only area that remains for future expansion of the village, which is surrounded by the fence and Jewish neighborhoods.
The Defense Ministry instructed to demolish some 70 apartments, citing concerns over their proximity to the separation fence, which it said made them a security threat. Two out of the 13 buildings set for demolition are populated with some 17 residents.
Jamie McGoldrick, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator, and other UN officials called on the Israeli authorities last week to halt the demolition plans. The European Union issued a statement saying: "The continuation of this policy undermines the viability of the two-state solution and the prospect for a lasting peace."
On Sunday, the court rejected a petition to postpone the demolition, which Palestinian activsts are concerned sets a precedent that will enable the demolition of thousands of buildings across the West Bank, effectively annulling the legal protection residents of other PA-controlled areas have.
"Some families put everything they have to put a roof over their heads, and it's all being ruined in front of their eyes in this despicable crime committed by Israel," community organizer Hamada Hamada told Haaretz.
"Large forces entered after 2 A.M. to the neighborhood, preventing any access to the homes and forcefully removing the residents as well as dozens of activists who were present at the scene, evacuating them while women and children were heard screaming in the background," Hamada added.
Palestinian officials say some of the threatened structures lie within areas that they should control. The Palestine Liberation Organization issued a statement accusing the Israeli court of aiming "to set a precedent to enable the Israeli occupying forces to demolish numerous Palestinian buildings located in close proximity" to the barrier.
The office of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas released a statement saying that "Israel bears the full responsibility for the dangerous escalation in Sur Baher, which is part of the implementation of the "deal of the century" whose goal is to bury the Palestinian issue."
According to the statement, Abbas has approached international and Arab officials in order to halt the demolitions.
Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said "We will not renounce our lands, and everything that was demolished will be rebuilt."
"The demolition is an implementation of the Bahrain conference and we have thousands of documents and petitions filed to the International Court of Justice in The Hague against Israel," he said in reference to the economic peace conference in Bahrain sponsored by the United States that took place in June.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said "The demolition of buildings in Sur Baher by the authorities of the occupation is a despicable crime, which is a direct result of the Bahrain Conference and the warm relationship between Israel and some Arab nations."
The Israeli military had no immediate comment on Monday, but a statement last week by Israel's military-run civil administration in the West Bank said enforcement would be pursuant to "operational considerations" and "state policy."
The International Court of Justice in The Hague issued an advisory opinion in 2004 that building the barrier on occupied territory was "contrary to international law."
Israel dismissed the non-binding decision as politically motivated and says the barrier played a key role in drastically reducing the number of attacks, which peaked in 2002 and 2003 during the Second Palestinian uprising known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada.
The West Bank separation barrier, which was being built since 2003, was intended to pass through Sur Baher, but its route was changed due to residents' campaign.Thus Wadi Hummus ended up on the Israeli side of the barrier, although legally it part of the West Bank and under the PA’s authority.
Many buildings were erected in the neighborhood over the last decade or so, most occupied by young couples and families from the village. The buildings set for demolition have some 100 apartments, 20 of which are tenanted and the rest are under construction.
Building permits for the construction were issued by the PA's planning ministry. However, seven years ago, the Israel Defense Forces Central Command issued an injunction banning construction of buildings within 250 meters of the separation barrier.
Locals say the order was not publicized and they had no knowledge of it, and that in any case, it is the PA that has planning authorization in the area.
Reuters contributed to this article.