TEL AVIV // The US state department has summoned Israel's ambassador in Washington to protest against the country's controversial evacuation of two Palestinian families from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem, the second US condemnation of its ally's settlement policy in two weeks. The censure, issued late on Tuesday, was compounded by similar disapproval expressed to Israel's ambassador to Sweden, which currently holds the European Union presidency, by that country's foreign ministry this week. Both moves, which come on the heels of strong criticism by the European Union, United Nations and the US secretary of state on the evacuations, suggest that the vigorous US call for Israel to curtail settlement expansion is drawing more support from the international community.
Two Palestinian families - consisting altogether of some 50 people, including 19 minors - were evicted from their houses on Sunday by club-wielding, black-clad Israeli riot police in the politically sensitive neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, prompting clashes in the predominantly Arab area. The evacuation was spurred by an order of Israel's Supreme Court, which ruled in favour of a Jewish settlers-backed group called Nahalat Shimon International, which claimed that Jews owned the houses as far back as the late 19th century, when the area was under Ottoman control.
The group claimed that the Jewish families were forced out of the houses in the 1920s and 1930s to escape a wave of Arab attacks. The Palestinian families deny the claims and say they possess documents proving their ownership of the properties. According to Ir Amim, an Israeli group that advocates that Jerusalem be equally shared by Israelis and Palestinians, Nahalat Shimon is seeking to construct a 200-unit settlement in Sheikh Jarrah.
US state department officials objected to the move in a discussion with Michael Oren, who was appointed last month as the Israeli ambassador to Washington. The censure came just two weeks after the state department summoned Mr Oren to demand that the Jerusalem municipality retract its approval last month of a project to build 20 apartments in Sheikh Jarrah for Jews. A senior Israeli government official in Jerusalem, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, expressed dismay with the state department's move, which he said was aimed at punctuating American criticism of Israel's settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
He said: "This was not a matter of government or municipal policy, but more of a legal issue. [The US] is using it as a pretext to reiterate and enhance its position." Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, on Monday called the evacuations "deeply regrettable" and accused Israel of failing to live up to its international obligations under existing peace initiatives. Standing alongside Nasser Judeh, Jordan's foreign minister, during a press conference in Washington, she stated: "I have said before that the eviction of families and demolition of homes in east Jerusalem is not in keeping with Israeli obligations. And I urge the government of Israel and municipal officials to refrain from such provocative actions."
The European Union issued a similarly strong-worded statement this week, calling the evictions "unacceptable". It said the evacuations "contravene repeated calls by the international community to refrain from any provocative actions in East Jerusalem. They confirm a worrying trend that runs counter to the creation of an atmosphere conducive to achieving a viable and credible solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians."
While the Israeli government's support of settlement expansion has spurred tensions with the country's key allies, Jewish construction in East Jerusalem is an especially sensitive issue because the Palestinians want the area to become their capital in a future independent state that would also include the West Bank and the Gaza strip. Israel captured both the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and subsequently annexed the territory in a move not recognised by the international community.
The two evacuated families were part of the group of some 28 Palestinian families resettled in Sheikh Jarrah by the UN in 1956 after they were made homeless in the 1948 war that created Israel. Yesterday, Haaretz, a liberal Israeli newspaper, condemned the evacuations as unjustified in an editorial. It said Jews have no right to return to the homes that had once belonged to them in East Jerusalem since Palestinians are also not allowed to reclaim the houses from which they were expelled during the 1948 war in what is now Israel.
It added that the settlers' ownership claim "is a two-edged sword that opens a political and legal Pandora's box".