Israel on Monday shrugged off sharp international criticism of its razing of an historic east Jerusalem hotel to make way for settler homes, saying it was a perfectly legal private deal.
"Actions undertaken yesterday at the Shepherd Hotel were conducted by private individuals in accordance with Israeli law," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement, stressing that "the Israeli government was not involved."
Israel on Sunday began demolishing the Shepherd Hotel in annexed east Jerusalem to make way for the construction of 20 luxury apartments for Jewish settlers in a move which sparked a welter of international criticism, including from top US and EU officials.
Defending the move, Netanyahu said Israel would never ban Jews from purchasing private property in Jerusalem.
"Just as Arab residents of Jerusalem can buy or rent property in predominantly Jewish neighbourhoods in Jerusalem, Jews can buy or rent property in predominantly Arab neighbourhoods in Jerusalem," he said.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Sunday "strongly" condemned the demolition in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.
"I reiterate that settlements are illegal under international law, undermine trust between the parties and constitute an obstacle to peace," Ashton said.
"Furthermore, we recall that east Jerusalem is part of occupied Palestinian territory; the EU does not recognise the annexation by Israel."
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also hit out at the operation, calling it a "disturbing development" that undermines efforts to achievea two state-solution.
But a spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry said it was wrong to refer to east Jerusalem as if it were a settlement.
"Calling Jerusalem a settlement is a misinterpretation, an insult to the history of the city," Yigal Palmor told AFP.
"It is incomprehensible that they are mixing questions of private rights, international law and politics," he added, saying the hotel was built on "private land, the development of which has nothing to do with diplomacy."
The British consulate in east Jerusalem, which is located near the hotel site, issued a statement out of London quoting Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt as condemning the demolition.
"We oppose provocative unilateral actions such as this, which hinder efforts to resume talks between the two parties leading to a two-state solution to this conflict," Burt said.
"This latest settlement activity does not help -- on the contrary, it raises tensions unnecessarily."
On Sunday morning, three bulldozers worked to bring down part of the dilapidated hotel, which was once home to Jerusalem's Muslim leader, Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, infamous for his ties to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.
Over the past few years, an increasing number of hardline Israeli settlers have begun moving into the heart of densely-populated Palestinian neighbourhoods in east Jerusalem, sparking clashes with the locals.
Palestinian officials reacted with fury to the demolition, with a spokesman for president Mahmud Abbas saying Israel has "ended any possibility of a return to negotiations.
Egypt and Jordan also warned that the hotel's demolition could fuel unrest in the Palestinian territories.
In Cairo, the foreign ministry issued a sharply-worded statement saying the move threatened to unleash "a new explosion of violence" and it lashed out at Israel for trying to "Judaise the Holy City and empty it of its Palestinian residents."
Israel would be held responsible for its "provocative policies," it added.
And in Amman, Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said Jordan's government "rejects and strongly denounces" Sunday's demolition work which could lead to "instability."
Jordan urged the international community to intervene and said Israel's action undermined peace efforts.
As anger simmered over the latest demolition in east Jerusalem, Israeli bulldozers razed another single-storey Palestinian home in the nearby neighbourhood of al-Suwwani, an AFP correspondent at the scene said.
The Palestinians regard east Jerusalem as the capital of their promised state and fiercely oppose any attempts to extend Israeli control over it.
Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed it in a move the rest of the world never recognised. The Jewish state considers the whole of Jerusalem its "eternal and indivisible" capital.
© 2011 AFP
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