JERUSALEM -- Israeli bulldozers destroyed six buildings, including at least three homes, in contested east Jerusalem on Tuesday, resuming the demolition of Palestinian property after a halt aimed at encouraging peace talks.

Jerusalem house demolitions are a volatile issue because of conflicting Israeli and Palestinian claims to the city's eastern sector. Israel sees it as part of its capital city, while Palestinians want it for their own future capital.

The municipality said none of the structures razed were homes, and that all had been illegally built and were not populated. The demolitions were carried out by a court order, the municipality said in a statement.

But Palestinians disputed those claims, saying three of the demolished structures were homes and one was a warehouse. Two daybeds and bags crammed with children's clothing and kitchen utensils were strewn outside one of the buildings.

Basem Isawi, 48, an unemployed contractor, stood stony-faced amid the rubble of his unfinished home, forbidding his six children to come out of the nearby house where they currently live to see what had happened to it.

Isawi said he built the almost-finished home illegally for about $25,000 because he was convinced the municipality would deny him a permit. He had been notified of the impending demolition but did not know when it was slated to happen, he said.

"We watched them destroy the house, and we couldn't do anything," Isawi said. Police said the demolitions were carried out without incident.

Since October, no houses had been demolished in the eastern sector of the city until Tuesday. The demolitions seemed to indicate a move away from the unofficial freeze on them, which Israel imposed after much criticism from Washington.

On Monday, a Jerusalem municipal committee gave preliminary approval to 32 new apartments in a Jewish neighborhood in east Jerusalem, rolling back a decision earlier this year to quietly put new projects on hold. And in recent weeks, the municipality has begun demolishing small, uninhabited structures, such as sheds, built without permits in east Jerusalem.

Palestinians say both demolitions and settlement construction undermine their efforts to establish a state on territory Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

Saeb Erekat, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, condemned the demolitions. "This government of Israel has been given the choice between settlements and peace and it is obvious that it chose settlements," he said.

The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would not comment Tuesday. A spokesman for the U.S. embassy had no comment.

Israel says it is only enforcing the law against building violations, but Palestinians say discriminatory planning practices make it impossible for them to get permits, leaving them no choice but to build illegally and risk demolition.

About a third of Jerusalem's 750,000 residents are Palestinian. They have residency status in Jerusalem and receive Israeli social benefits, but do not hold Israeli citizenship.

They largely boycott municipal elections to avoid recognizing Israel's hold on east Jerusalem.

Meir Margalit, a dovish Jerusalem municipal councilman, said the demolitions were aimed at squeezing Palestinians out of the city.

"The municipality and the government are afraid that the Palestinians will become a majority in the future, and in order to stop this process they have forbidden them to build houses in order to convince them to leave the city," Margalit said.

Also Tuesday, Hamas police in Gaza clashed with demonstrators from a hardline Islamist group.

The Hizb ut-Tahrir movement, which advocates a world run according to Islamic law, wanted to demonstrate in Gaza City but were refused permission. Several dozen backers defied the ban and threw rocks at police, who fired in the air, wounding a bystander, hospital officials and Hamas said.

Hizb ut-Tahrir said dozens of its backers were arrested. It was the first known clash between the Islamic rulers of Gaza and the worldwide Hizb ut-Tahrir movement.


Associated Press writer Ibrahim Barzak contributed to this report from Gaza City.

© 2010 The Associated Press