Demolition of the Shepherd Hotel, in east Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, began at dawn on Sunday.

It came after a long battle over construction rights that drew condemnation from US President Barack Obama and other leaders around the world over the past few years.

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The hotel, which was built in the 1930s by the mufti of Jerusalem Haj Muhammad Amin al-Husseini (1921- 1948), was bought in 1985 by American millionaire Irving Moskowitz, who has bankrolled other Jewish housing projects in Arab neighborhoods in the capital. Moskowitz, partnering with the Ateret Cohanim organization, plans to turn the complex into 20 apartments for religious Jewish families.

The building received a construction permit from the municipality six months ago, the last stamp of approval needed before construction can begin.

Construction was delayed for six months over a dispute with a son of Faisal al-Husseini (1940-2001), a cousin of Haj Husseini and a former Palestinian Authority minister for Jerusalem affairs, who claimed that the family owned part of the parking lot that will serve as an entrance to the future complex. They lost the court case about a month ago, allowing Moskowitz to start demolishing the building.

On Sunday, only the right side of the building was demolished. Because of its historical value, the façade of the left part will be remain intact.


The first bulldozers arrived around 5 a.m.; by noon the right half of the four-story structure was a pile of rubble.

“It’s not just a disgrace against the owners, it’s a disgrace against history,” said Adnan Abdul Razeh, a resident of Bab e-Zahara, a neighborhood south of Sheikh Jarrah. His wife was a niece of Haj Husseini.

“They’re trying to erase this, but it will stay in people’s minds, they can’t erase a whole nation. No imperial power has ever stayed in Jerusalem, not the Ottomans, not the British, and not Israel.”

Chief PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat condemned the project. “As long as this government continues with settlement and acts such as the demolition of the Shepherd Hotel there will be no negotiations,” Erekat said.

Erekat accused Israel of conducting a policy of “ethnic cleansing” against Arabs in Jerusalem.

“Israel is demolishing Palestinian buildings one after the other in an attempt to ethnically cleanse Jerusalem from its Palestinian inhabitants, culture and history,” he said. “Israel is targeting east Jerusalem in general and Sheikh Jarrah in particular through a fierce campaign to expel Palestinian residents from their homes and replace them with Jewish settlers.”

Erekat said such actions, which he dubbed illegal, were designed to undermine the two-state solution and the peace talks.

City Councilor Elisha Peleg (Likud), who sits on the Local Planning and Construction Committee that gave the plan the building permit half a year ago, defended the Jewish right to build in east Jerusalem.

“It’s a very simple thing, people are just trying to make a provocation,” Peleg told The Jerusalem Post at the demolition site on Sunday. For several hours he was a lone voice defending the construction against an angry crowd of Arab activists and residents.

“Jews building in Jerusalem is routine. Arabs are building all the time in east Jerusalem, and no one comes to photograph them,” Peleg said.

Around 50 left-wing activists, mobilized by the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement, protested the demolition at the site on Sunday afternoon. The Solidarity Movement has also organized weekly protests in the neighborhood to protest the eviction of three Arab families from Jewish-owned apartments.

Resident Nasser Ghawi, who was evicted in August 2009, said he expects the hotel to become a new focal point for protests.

“It’s magnificent, this is beautiful,” Ateret Cohanim spokesman Danny Luria said, watching the dust rise from the bulldozers and passing out pamphlets highlighting Haj Husseini’s connection to the Nazis and to the death of thousands of Jews in pogroms that he encouraged.

“Call it poetic justice, call it historic justice, this is something special... The symbolism of destruction of the house of a Nazi is rather unique,” Luria said.

Moskowitz’s original plan included 100 apartments, but it was scrapped because it would have needed to go through a lengthy approval process by the Local and District Planning and Building committees.

Since the plot had been zoned for up to 20 residential units under the a master plan for Sheikh Jarrah, by not exceeding the zoning plan Moskowitz was able to bypass the regular approval process, which includes approval from the Interior Ministry.

Nabil Abu Rudaineh, a spokesman for PA President Mahmoud Abbas, said Israel had no right to build in any part of east Jerusalem or the Palestinian territories that were captured in 1967.

By demolishing the hotel, Israel had destroyed all US efforts to revive the peace process, Abu Rudaineh. The Obama administration should put an end to Israel’s practices if it wanted to maintain its credibility, he said.

The PA was determined to seek a UN Security Council resolution condemning construction in the settlements, he said. Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior PLO official and adviser to Abbas, said the razing of the hotel would have “grave repercussions” for the region.

“The actions of this Israeli government prove that it does not want peace,” he said. “Israel is only interested in creating new facts on the ground.”

Abed Rabbo too said that the demolition of the hotel would accelerate the PA’s plan to seek a Security Council resolution condemning the settlements.

The PA-appointed mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, said that the demolition of the historic hotel was in the context of Israel’s “arbitrary actions to Judaize Jerusalem and wipe out its Arab and Islamic character.”

Earlier, PA negotiator Nabil Shaath said Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu did not want peace.

“Netanyahu is a dangerous man,” Shaath said. “He doesn’t want peace and stability in the region. He doesn’t want the Palestinians to have their own independent state.”

Obama first condemned the Shepherd Hotel project in July 2009, followed by similar complaints from Britain, France, Germany, Sweden and Russia.

The British Embassy condemned the demolition anew on Sunday.

“The British government reaffirms its strong, long-standing opposition to the creation of this new illegal settlement in occupied east Jerusalem and condemns today’s demolition in Sheikh Jarrah. The establishment and expansion of settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories are illegal,” said Alistair Burt, minister for the Middle East and South Asia.

“This latest settlement activity does not help – on the contrary, it raises tensions unnecessarily.”

The British Consulate in east Jerusalem is next to the Shepherd Hotel property.

Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said, “I strongly condemn this morning’s demolition of the Shepherd Hotel and the planned construction of a new illegal settlement. I reiterate that settlements are illegal under international law, undermine trust between the parties and constitute an obstacle to peace.”

Herb Keinon and AP contributed to this report.

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