(RFE/RL) -- Israel is drawing international criticism after Israeli riot police forcibly evicted two Palestinian families from their homes in an Arab neighborhood of occupied East Jerusalem -- and then moved Jewish settlers into the buildings.
Chris Gunnes, a spokesman for the United Nations' agency in charge of Palestinian refugees, says the Palestinian families had lived at the houses in the up-market Sheikh Jarrah district for more than 50 years.
The move came despite calls by U.S. President Barack Obama's administration for Israel to halt the expansion of Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Megan Mattson said such actions in East Jerusalem are violations of Israel's obligations under the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.
In a written statement, she said that "unilateral actions" taken by either the Israelis or Palestinians "cannot prejudge the outcome of negotiations and will not be recognized by the international community."
Robert Serry, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, described the evictions as "totally unacceptable." He said the evictions "heighten tensions and undermine international efforts" to create conditions for successful peace negotiations.
Israel has claimed East Jerusalem as part of its sovereign capital since capturing that part of the city from Jordan during the Six Day War of 1967 and annexing it -- a move not recognized by any other country. The Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of their hoped-for state.
Israeli police who carried out the eviction order against the Palestinian families cited a ruling issued last month by Israel's Supreme Court that says the houses belong to Jews and that the Arab families had been living there illegally.
The court ordered the evictions after an appeal by the Nahalat Shimon International settler group, which claimed Jewish settlers have title deeds for the properties.
The evicted families say the Jewish settlers are holding "fake title deeds" to homes that had been obtained by the Palestinians in line with a deal struck between Jordan and the UN agency for refugees in 1956 -- when Jordan had jurisdiction over the area.
"What happened was that at 5:30 in the morning private forces broke into the houses," said Nasser al-Ghawi, one of the evicted Palestinians.
"They invaded the houses and they started to hit everyone from the family. Ambulances took many of the injured away for medical treatment. It is a barbarian operation. It is not legal. It is a terrorist operation."
Battle For Jerusalem
Some Palestinian leaders say the evictions are part of a wider plan by Israel to redraw the demographics of East Jerusalem and create a Jewish majority there.
"For sure, the battle in Sheikh Jarrah has not ended. There are confiscation orders for [a total of] 28 houses. Three of them have already been carried out. There is a battle to save the other houses," said Hatem Abdul Qader, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council for the Jerusalem district.
"We will be firm in this battle on a political, social, and legal level. There is an Israeli project in Sheikh Jarah that aims to remove this neighborhood and connect it with Shepherds Hotel and the Mufti neighborhood and to establish a huge settlement close to the Old City of Jerusalem in order to make the Old City of Jerusalem Jewish."
Indeed, the status of East Jerusalem is one of the most explosive issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Since 1967, Israel has boosted the Jewish presence there -- building neighborhoods where about 180,000 Jews now live. Organizations linked to the Jewish West Bank settlement movement also have bought properties inside Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem and moved Israelis in.
About 270,000 Palestinians now live in East Jerusalem, or 35 percent of the city's total population of 760,000.
Jewish settlers have already moved into six other buildings in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, which is home to consulates and trendy restaurants. Armed men guard the stone houses where settlers have hoisted Israeli flags to assert Jewish dominance.
The evictions drew strong words of criticism from Israel's closest ally, the United States, which has been increasing pressure in recent months for Israel to halt construction of Jewish settlements in occupied land.
Richard Miron, a spokesman for the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, says Israel's actions were "totally unacceptable."
The British Consulate, which is based in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, echoed those views. The British Consulate said it is unacceptable for Israel to claim that moving extremist Jewish settlers into the ancient Arab neighborhood is a matter for the Israeli courts or municipal officials to decide.
It also said that Israel's actions are "incompatible with the Israeli-professed desire for peace," and could allow extremists to set the Middle East peace agenda.
compiled from news agency reports