TEL AVIV // Europe yesterday condemned Israel for speeding up construction of illegal settlements, for evictions and demolitions in Palestinian homes and for settler violence against Palestinians in the West bank.
The 27 European Union foreign ministers also castigated Israel's attempts to legalise unauthorised outposts, and blamed it for deteriorating living conditions among Palestinians.
The criticism came on the eve of Nakba (catastrophe) Day, which marks the flight and expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during the 1948 war that followed the creation of Israel.
The statement was a further reminder of the international community's condemnation of Israeli settlements, which it views as illegal, and the harsh approach of Israeli authorities and Jewish settlers to Palestinians in the West Bank.
It emerged just weeks after the Israeli government legalised three unauthorised Jewish outposts in the West Bank, and amid efforts by several government ministers to circumvent a court order to evacuate a Jewish neighbourhood in the territory.
The foreign ministers said: "The EU expresses deep concern about developments on the ground, which threaten to make a two-state solution impossible."
The EU's condemnation was welcomed by Palestinians. Ghassan Khatib, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, said: "Settlement activity is illegal and its continuation jeopardises the chances for peace and the two-state solution."
Mr Khatib said that while the EU had been "quite clear" in its past criticism of settlement construction, the Palestinians "need Europe to use its leverage and good relations with Israel to try to influence the behaviour of Israel in this direction".
For the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, the EU's criticism may be a blow to efforts to win more international legitimacy with the addition last week of the biggest centrist Israeli party to his hardline, pro-settler ruling coalition.
Israeli officials said yesterday they had employed intensive lobbying in recent weeks to reduce the document's criticism of the country, including by softening the document's condemnation of settler violence towards Palestinians.
One of them told The National: "We told the Europeans that the condemnation of settler violence was not only justified, but that the Israeli government was the first to condemn it and to take specific measures to curb it. Now apparently these measures have been effective and it's been dramatically reduced."
According to the official, Israeli diplomatic efforts may also have helped to persuade the EU to call for "direct negotiations" and to add criticism of Palestinian incitement against Israel in the media and other areas.
Nevertheless, in its official response, Israel said the statement included a "long list of claims and criticisms which are based on a partial, biased and one-sided depiction of realities on the ground".
The EU said its reports were based on data from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The criticism appeared to be a further bid to pressure Israel to break the deadlock in talks with the Palestinians.
The EU statement said a restart of peace talks was "all the more urgent" because of the violence and pro-democracy protests across the Arab world, a possible warning that Palestinians may also initiate such demonstrations.
So far, however, attempts to resume the peace process appear to have failed.
On Saturday, an Israeli envoy delivered a letter from Mr Netanyahu to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, in which he rejected Mr Abbas's call to stop settlement construction before peace talks resume. The letter was a reply to Mr Abbas's letter from last month.