Israel razes Palestinian homes 'built too near barrier'

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Media caption,

Israel pulls down a cluster of Palestinian homes

Israel has begun demolishing a cluster of Palestinian homes it says were built illegally too close to the separation barrier in the occupied West Bank.

Security forces moved in to Sur Baher, on the edge of East Jerusalem, to tear down buildings said to house 17 people.

Residents said they had been given permits to build by the Palestinian Authority, and accused Israel of an attempt to grab West Bank land.

But Israel's Supreme Court ruled that they had violated a construction ban.

Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war and later effectively annexed East Jerusalem. Under international law, both areas are considered to be occupied territory, though Israel disputes this.

Some 700 Israeli police officers and 200 soldiers were involved in Monday's operation in the village of Wadi Hummus, on the edge of Sur Baher.

They moved in at about 04:00 (01:00 GMT) along with excavators, which began tearing down the 10 buildings the UN says were earmarked for demolition.

Nine of the Palestinians who have been displaced are refugees, including five children, according to the UN. Another 350 people who owned homes in buildings that were unoccupied or under construction are also affected.

One of the residents, Ismail Abadiyeh, told AFP news agency his family would be left "on the street".

Another man who owned an unfinished house said he was "losing everything".

"I had a permit to build from the Palestinian Authority. I thought I was doing the right thing," Fadi al-Wahash told Reuters news agency.

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PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said the Palestinians would complain to the International Criminal Court (ICC) about the "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," he added.

But Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said Israel's Supreme Court had ruled that "the illegal construction constitutes a severe security threat".

"The court also ruled unequivocally that those who built houses in the area of the security fence, knew that building in that area was prohibited, and took the law into their own hands," he added.

"Among other things, the destruction of private property in occupied territory is only permissible where rendered absolutely necessary for military operations, which is not applicable. Furthermore, it results in forced evictions, and contributes to the risk of forcible transfer facing many Palestinians in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem," they said.

The European Union urged Israel to immediately halt the demolitions, saying they were the continuation of a policy that undermined the prospect for lasting peace.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Israel's Supreme Court said the structures were built illegally and posed a security risk

The demolitions in Wadi Hummus are particularly controversial because the buildings are situated in part of the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority's (PA) jurisdiction but on the Israeli side of the separation barrier.

The barrier was built in and around the West Bank in the wake of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, which began in 2000. Israel says the barrier's purpose is to prevent infiltrations from the West Bank by Palestinian attackers, but Palestinians say it is a tool to take over occupied land.

In 2004, when the barrier was under construction, residents of Wadi Hummus asked the Israeli military to change its planned route so that the village was on the Israeli side of the fence.

They wanted to maintain the geographical integrity of Sur Bahir, most of which lies within the East Jerusalem municipal area, and preserve access to an area where additional residential construction could be carried out.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Residents said they had been given permits to build by the Palestinian Authority

The barrier route was subsequently changed, but the PA continued to have authority over civil affairs in Wadi Hummus, including planning and zoning.

Permits for the buildings in the village were reportedly issued by the PA's planning ministry about 10 years ago. But in 2012, the Israeli military ordered a halt to the construction work because they were within 250m (820ft) of the barrier.

Lawyers for the residents argued at the Supreme Court that the Israeli military had no jurisdiction over the area, but the judges said in June that the buildings would "limit [military] operational freedom near the barrier and increase tensions with the local population".

"Such construction may also shelter terrorists or illegal residents among the civilian population, and allow terrorist operatives to smuggle weapons or sneak inside Israeli territory," they added.