"My hope is that once direct talks have begun, well before the moratorium [on settlements] has expired, that that will create a climate in which everybody feels a greater investment in success," Obama had said last Tuesday, adding that he hoped mutual confidence-building moves would pave the way to negotiations.

The White House meeting had come as Obama and Netanyahu tried to downplay recent tensions between their countries over Israel's continuing construction of settlements, which is illegal under international law.

US opposes 'unilateral actions'

But on Tuesday the latest demolitions threatened to turn ties frosty again, with the US joining the EU and UN in expressing concern over them.

PJ Crowley, a spokesman for the US state department, urged Israel to refrain from actions that could undermine negotiations with Palestinian leaders.

"Obviously we are concerned about reports today of a number of buildings in East Jerusalem being demolished," he said at a news briefing on Tuesday.

"The US has made it clear that it disagrees with some government of Israel actions in Jerusalem that affect Palestinians in areas such as housing, including home demolitions, and has urged all parties to avoid actions that could undermine trust.

"We continue to oppose and we will make clear to the government of Israel that we oppose unilateral actions that prejudge negotiations.

"The status of Jerusalem and all other permanent status issues must be resolved by the parties through negotiations," he said.

Volatile issue

in depth

  Video:
  Israel expands settlements
  Israelis protest freeze
  Map of East Jerusalem housing plan
  Focus:
  Comments: US-Israel relations
  Jerusalem's religious heart
  Strain on US-Israel ties
  Q&A: Jewish settlements
  Riz Khan:
  Middle East peace process
  Battle over settlements
  Inside Story:
  US and Israel poles apart
  Programmes:
  Israel: Rise of the right
  Holy Land Grab

Jerusalem demolitions are a volatile issue because of conflicting Israeli and Palestinian claims to the city's eastern sector.

Israel, which captured the sector in the 1967 Middle East war, sees it as part of its capital city, while Palestinians want it returned for the capital of their future state.

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.

Tuesday's bulldozing of the buildings was carried out by a court order, none of the structures razed were homes and all had been illegally built and uninhabited, the Jerusalem 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 set to happen, he said.

New Israeli apartments

"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 neighbourhood 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.

Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian negotiator and aide to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, 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.