JERUSALEM – Israeli police evicted two Palestinian families in east Jerusalem on Sunday, then allowed Jewish settlers to move into their homes, drawing criticism from Palestinians, the United Nations and the State Department.
Police arrived before dawn and cordoned off part of the Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah before forcibly removing more than 50 people, said Chris Gunness, spokesman for the U.N. agency in charge of Palestinian refugees.
U.N. staff later saw vehicles bringing Jewish settlers to move into the homes, he said.
Israeli police cited a ruling by the country's Supreme Court that the houses belonged to Jews and that the Arab families had been living there illegally.
Gunness said the families had lived in the homes for more than 50 years.
The status of east Jerusalem is one of the most explosive issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel took control of east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed it, a move not recognized by any other country. Since then, Israel has to boosted the Jewish presence there, building neighborhoods where about 180,000 Jews live. The Palestinians want east Jerusalem as the capital of their hoped-for state.
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 live in east Jerusalem, or 35 percent of the city's total population of 760,000.
The international community has pressured Israel to refrain from evicting Palestinians and building new homes for Jews in east Jerusalem, saying such moves hamper peacemaking efforts.
State Department spokeswoman Megan Mattson said such actions in east Jerusalem constitute violations of Israel's obligations under U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.
"Unilateral actions taken by either party cannot prejudge the outcome of negotiations and will not be recognized by the international community," she said in a statement.
Robert Serry, the U.N. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, called Sunday's evictions "totally unacceptable."
"These actions heighten tensions and undermine international efforts to create conditions for fruitful negotiations to achieve peace," he said in a statement.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat also condemned the move.
"While Israeli authorities have promised the American administration that home demolitions, home evictions and other provocations against Palestinian Jerusalemites would be stopped, what we've seen on the ground is completely the opposite," he said in a statement.
Khawla Hanoun, 35, who lived in one of the homes, said police ordered her and 16 family members to leave the house before dawn and forced them out at gunpoint when they refused.
"Now our future is in the streets," she said. "We will remain steadfast until we return home. By any method, we must go back home."