By Stephen Farrell
JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israeli police evicted a Palestinian family from their home in a flashpoint East Jerusalem neighbourhood on Wednesday before a digger tore down the property, prompting criticism from rights activists and diplomats.
Resident Mahmoud Salhiyeh took to the roof of the house in Sheikh Jarrah on Monday, threatening to blow it up with gas canisters if he and his family - who he said have lived there for decades - were forced out.
Family members and activists maintained a vigil inside and on top of the building until armed police cleared the site before dawn on Wednesday.
A mechanical digger then demolished the property, leaving behind a mound of rubble and personal effects that was removed some hours later.
Police said several people were arrested "on suspicion of violating a court order, violent fortification and disturbing public order."
Jerusalem municipal authorities had expropriated the plot on which the house stood, which lies in a tree-lined area of East Jerusalem north of the Old City walls that Israel captured and occupied in a war in 1967 and later annexed.
Israel regards all of Jerusalem as its capital, but Palestinians claim the east of the city as the capital of a future state.
'WE CAN'T REACH THEM'
Mohammed Salhiyeh, a relative, said he had been unable to contact Mahmoud or anyone else who lived in the house.
"Their phones are all off, we can't reach them," he told Reuters. He said the evicted family had made no plans to relocate.
Police and the Jerusalem municipality said the family had been given "countless opportunities" to hand over the land since an evacuation order was served in 2017.
It said authorities were enforcing a court-approved eviction order of "illegal buildings built on grounds designated for a school".
Sheikh Jarrah has seen clashes between Jewish settlers and Palestinian families facing eviction, turning it into an emblem of what Palestinians regard as an Israeli campaign to force them out of East Jerusalem.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called Wednesday's demolition a "war crime" and urged Washington the United States to "compel the government of the Israeli occupation to stop the policy of ethnic cleansing against the Palestinian people, according to a statement published by the official WAFA news agency.
One international activist who watched the early morning demolition said: "I am devastated. You see livelihoods being destroyed in front of your eyes."
The site is across from the British Consulate in East Jerusalem, which said on Monday that evictions in occupied territory, in all but the most exceptional circumstances, were against international humanitarian law.
It urged the Israeli government to "cease such practices which only serve to increase tensions on the ground."
(Additional reporting by Roleen TafakjiWriting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Kim Coghill and John Stonestreet)