By Mike Smith, AFP/Sur Baher, Palestinian Territories
Israel yesterday demolished a number of Palestinian homes it considers illegally constructed near its separation barrier south of Jerusalem in a move that drew international condemnation.
Palestinian leaders slammed the demolitions in the Sur Baher area which straddles the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem, but Israel defended them as essential to its security and noted they had been approved by its supreme court.
UN officials and the European Union condemned the demolitions and called for an immediate halt to the policy.
Before dawn, hundreds of Israeli police and soldiers sealed off buildings in the area close to the Israeli separation barrier which cuts off the West Bank, an AFP journalist said.
Residents and activists were dragged out of homes, though most of the buildings under demolition orders — a total of 10 — were still under construction.
Earthmovers then demolished at least three multi-story buildings.
They were also preparing to destroy an eight-story building still under construction.
One man yelled “I want to die here”, after being forced out. The owner of one demolished building, Akram Zawahra, said “they are destroying our dreams and the dreams of our children.” “They won’t destroy our determination,” he said.
Israel says the buildings were constructed too close to the separation barrier and posed a security risk.
It has established a buffer zone around the barrier in the area of between 100m and 300m, according to UN humanitarian agency OCHA.
OCHA says demolishing all 10 of the buildings would see three households of 17 people displaced and another 350 people affected.
The buildings were to include a total of 70 apartments, it said.
Palestinians accuse Israel of using security as a pretext to force them out of the area as part of long-term efforts to expand settlements and roads linking them.
They also point out that most of the buildings are located in areas meant to be under Palestinian Authority civilian control according to the Oslo Accords of the 1990s.
“What is painfully happening here is the biggest and most dangerous demolition operation outside of war operations,” Walid Assaf, the Palestinian minister in charge of monitoring Israeli settlements, said in a video from the site.
In a statement Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas called on the “international community to intervene immediately to stop this aggression against our people”.
Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan accused the Palestinians of “lies”, stressing the demolition was validated by the country’s top court after a lengthy process.
“The structures were built illegally next to the security fence and constitute a risk to the lives of the civilians and security forces,” Erdan said in a tweet, noting the demolitions were due to be completed within the day.
Ofir Gendelman, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also stressed security concerns.
“During the last year there were hundreds of security incidents and thousands of attempts by Palestinians to infiltrate our territory, some of them to carry out terrorist operations,” he tweeted.
The European Union however urged Israel to immediately halt the demolitions and said “this policy undermines the viability of the two-state solution.”
A group of diplomats, mostly from Europe, recently toured the area.
Nickolay Mladenov, UN envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said “Israel must stop this policy” and “no amount of humanitarian aid can compensate” the displaced.
Israel occupied the West Bank and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War. It later annexed east Jerusalem in a move never recognised by the international community. It began construction of the barrier during the bloody second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in the early 2000s and says it is necessary to protect against attacks.
Palestinians see it as an “apartheid wall” and a potent symbol of the Israeli occupation.
On June 18, a 30-day notice was given by Israeli authorities informing of their intent to demolish the Sur Baher homes.
Residents fear another 100 buildings in the area in a similar situation could be at risk in the near future.
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