Israeli bulldozers razed six buildings in East Jerusalem, including three Palestinian homes, marking the end of Israeli efforts to refrain from contentious demolitions that could undermine peace talks.
With excavators preparing to tear down one of the homes in Beit Hanina, a Palestinian suburb of Arab-dominated East Jerusalem, relatives and friends were given just one hour to save the belongings of the owners, who were out at the time.
Amid the Obama administration's intensified efforts to bring the two sides back to direct talks after an 18-month hiatus, the renewed demolitions sparked fresh international condemnation of Israel's policies towards Palestinians in East Jerusalem.
Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission President, said the demolitions were "counterproductive". "Settlements and demolition of houses are illegal ... they constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible," he said in Brussels.
Jerusalem remains the most contested issue of any eventual peace deal. Israel claims East Jerusalem – which it captured and annexed after the Six Day War in 1967 – as its "indivisible" capital. The Palestinians claim it as the capital of a future independent state. The international community regards it as occupied territory.
After rushing back from the doctors to her Beit Hanina street yesterday lunchtime, Dalel Al-Rajabi collapsed to her knees, sobbing as she surveyed the mangled metal and masonry that had been her home.
Comforted by friends and relatives, she was helped over to what had been her front door and seated on furniture salvaged from her home, little more than a shack with a corrugated-iron roof. She said it was the second time in four years that the Israeli authorities had destroyed her residence. "They gave me no warning," Mrs Al-Rajabi said, in tears and holding her crying two-month-old baby in her arms. "My children and I are on the street. Where will we live?"
The Jerusalem municipality yesterday denied that it had destroyed any homes that were inhabited, despite claims that a second house was also lived in. Palestinians admit they build homes without permits, but argue that it is impossible to obtain permission from the Israeli authorities to build, even when they own the land.
The resumption of demolitions underscore the determination of Nir Barkat, Jerusalem's hardline mayor, to press on with plans to tear down illegally built Palestinian homes despite strong resistance in Washington. Critics have assailed a policy that discriminates against Palestinians at the same time as approving thousands of new Jewish homes in East Jerusalem.
The demolitions come just one week after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met President Barack Obama in Washington in an effort to smooth relations strained by a row over ill-timed Jewish construction in East Jerusalem.
In a report last year, the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance said that there were 1,500 pending demolition orders in East Jerusalem. Washington has urged Israel to refrain from any provocations that could undermine the resumption of peace talks, including demolitions.
The US has also leaned on Mr Netanyahu to cease Jewish construction in East Jerusalem, which critics say is aimed at undermining the Palestinian claim to the eastern party of the city.