(United Nations) The demolition of Palestinian homes near a military barrier on the outskirts of Jerusalem broke international law, and may amount to a war crime, Palestinian officials and human rights groups have said this week.

Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian envoy to the United Nations, condemned the deployment of Israel police, soldiers and bulldozers to the Sur Baher suburb, who tore down Palestinian homes earlier this week.

“In the early hours of Monday, a large contingent of Israeli soldiers entered the homes of the families residing there, forcing them to leave their homes before proceeding to destroying them using military bulldozers and massive amounts of dynamite,” Mansour said.

“The scenes have been shocking and heartbreaking… this is a blatant act of ethnic cleansing and forced transfer, tantamount to a war crime, and it must be fully condemned and prosecuted as such.”

The demolition of some ten apartment buildings, most of them still under construction, has left 17 people homeless, including 11 children, Mansour said on Tuesday. Another 350 Palestinians are waiting for the arrival of bulldozers at their homes too.

The Israeli military considers the homes, which are close to an Israeli separation wall that crisscrosses the West Bank, a “security” risk. Judges ruled in favour of the military in June, ending a seven-year legal battle, and set Monday as the deadline to knock down the homes.

Saleh Higazi, a regional director for Amnesty International, a UK-based rights watchdog, said that the demolitions in the Wadi al-Hummus area were a “flagrant violation of international law” and a war crime.

“Israel has attempted to justify these demolitions under the guise of security by claiming the homes are too close to the wall/fence, but this does not stand up to scrutiny,” Higazi said in a statement.

For decades, Israel has used “disproportionate measures in the name of security to expand their control over Palestinian land and push Palestinians out of areas they consider strategic, forcibly displacing entire communities,” Higazi added.

Rosemary DiCarlo, head of the UN’s Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, said that the demolitions had hurt the livelihoods of some 300 Palestinians and were “not compatible” with Israel’s legal obligations.

Israel has demolished more than 1,100 structures in East Jerusalem this past decade, displacing more than 2,000 people, the UN says. This appears to be accelerating, with 126 of these demolitions occurring from January to mid-July this year.

Japan’s ambassador to the UN, Yasuhisa Kawamura, said that the demolitions at Sur Baher and elsewhere had served to “undermine the viability” of a future Palestinian state – a bedrock of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for decades.

But Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, told reporters that Israeli officials had simply followed the rules.

“If you build without a permit, your house will not stay,” Danon said. “That’s the rule of law in Israel.”

Israel built its separation barrier in the early 2000s, in a move that it says was needed to prevent Palestinian suicide bombers from reaching Israel from the West Bank. It is projected to be 720km long when complete.

Palestinians accuse Israel of using security as a pretext to force them out of the area as part of long-term efforts to expand settlements on Palestinian land, which is illegal under international law.

They also point out that most of the buildings in the Wadi al-Hummus neighbourhood are meant to be under the Palestinian Authority and civilian control, under a 1990s peace deal known as the Oslo Accords.

“Israel must immediately end its cruel and discriminatory policy of home demolitions and forced displacement,” said Higazi.

“Instead of destroying families’ homes, Israel must dismantle parts of the fence/wall built inside the occupied Palestinian territories.”

Israel captured east Jerusalem and the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war. The international community considers both areas to be occupied territory, and the Palestinians want them as parts of a future independent state.

Israel annexed east Jerusalem and considers it part of its capital – a step that is not recognized globally. But competing claims to the territory have created many legal headaches.