What was meant to be a general debate on the Middle East turned into a diplomatic onslaught on Wednesday night as the United Nations' top body took aim at Israeli policies in east Jerusalem.

France and the United States were among several nations to voice support for Assistant Secretary-General Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, who opened the Security Council session with heavy criticism of Israeli house demolitions in the Arab-populated eastern half of Jerusalem.

Over 100 houses had been destroyed in the last three months in the eastern part of the city, which Israel formally annexed in 1980, he said.

The UN number two went on to voice dismay over the treatment by settlers of West Bank Palestinians, who he said had suffered 107 separate in the past three months attacks - a result of the 'price tag' strategy employed by rightwing Israeli activists, who retaliate violently against every eviction of settlers by the government.

Israel's settlement policy also drew censure from France, one of the Security Council's five permanent members, along with the U.S., China, Russia and the United Kingdom.

"Settlements are a significant obstacle to peace," French Ambassador Gerard Araud told the council. "There will never be peace until all settlement construction is halted."

Despite Israeli promises to freeze settlement building in the West Bank, construction continued, Fernandez-Taranco said.

The Argentine diplomat also accused Israel of obstructing shipments of aid and building materials to the Gaza strip, whose borders are subject to strict controls by the Israeli and Egyptian governments.

Nor did Israel's closest ally, the United States, shy away from criticism. Alejandro Wolf, the second most senior American delegate at the UN, told the assembled diplomats that the U.S. opposed all settlement building in east Jerusalem and condemned house demolitions.

In response, Israel's ambassador to the UN, Gabriella Shalev, said:

"Incomplete and one-sided briefings do nothing to advance peace and the Council has a duty to listen to both sides."

She added: "Sessions of the Security Council are no substitute for direct negotiations between the two sides."

Israel has for some time attempted to restart high-level talks with the Palestinians - but President Mahmoud Abbas has so far refused to return to the negotiating table until Israel freezes all construction in the West Bank, including in east Jerusalem.