Israel’s political leadership was united Tuesday in condemning EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton’s comparison of the children murdered in Toulouse with the IDF’s killing of children during fighting against terrorists in Gaza.
In response to the criticism, Ashton, whose official title is the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, issued a clarification on Tuesday, saying her words had been "grossly distorted" and that news reports failed to mention she had also spoken about the children of Sderot.
“The high representative strongly condemns the killings at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse yesterday and extends her sympathies to the families and friends of the victims and to the people of France and the Jewish community,” the statement said. “We want to make this clear, because her words yesterday at the UNRWA event were grossly distorted by one of the news agencies. In her remarks, the high representative referred to tragedies taking the lives of children around the world and drew no parallel whatsoever between the circumstances of the Toulouse attack and the situation in Gaza.”
Ashton’s original controversial remarks were made on Monday at the Engaging Youth -- Palestinian Refugees conference, an event sponsored by the government of Belgium and the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which assists Palestinian refugees.
“We remember young people who have been killed in all sorts of terrible circumstances -- the Belgian children having lost their lives in a terrible tragedy [in a bus accident last week in Switzerland], and when we think of what happened in Toulouse today, when we remember what happened in Norway a year ago, when we know what is happening in Syria, when we see what is happening in Gaza and in different parts of the world -- we remember young people and children who lose their lives,” Ashton said.
The EU on Tuesday issued a corrected version of the speech by its foreign policy chief. The new transcript of Ashton's remarks mentions the situation of children in both Gaza and the southern Israeli town of Sderot, although the first version mentioned only Gaza. The new text was released after a day of damage control, with Ashton’s spokesman, Michael Mann, insisting that her remarks had been "grossly distorted," although he had not indicated at the time that she had talked about Sderot too, AFP reported.
Prior to Ashton’s clarification, Israel had registered an official protest to the Europeans. On Tuesday the deputy director-general of the Foreign Ministry telephoned the EU ambassador in Israel and protested the remarks. According to the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry, the utterance was unfortunate, but following the clarification, Jerusalem viewed the matter as closed.
At the same time, various diplomatic and political sources said they were unwilling to forgive the remarks and described Ashton’s clarification as “clumsy,” pointing out that she had retained the comparison between the murders of children in Norway and in Toulouse, while ignoring the fact that the latter was an anti-Semitic hate crime. On Tuesday, Interior Minister Eli Yishai called on Ashton to resign because her statement "further harms the ability of the EU to be an honest broker" in the Middle East.
“The tragedy and cruelty of what happened in Toulouse stand out,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday. “It was a close-range execution of an 8-year-old girl, more ferocious and inhumane than it is possible to describe. What gets me especially incensed is the comparison between the targeted slaughter of children and the surgical, defensive activities of the Israel Defence Forced that are meant to hit terrorists who use children for human shields.”
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who is visiting China, also weighed in earlier, saying, “Her words were inappropriate. I hope she retracts them. Israel is the most moral country in the world and even though it is forced to fight terrorists who operate in the midst of a civilian population, the IDF does everything not to harm that population. There is no military in the world as moral as the IDF, which endangers its soldiers in order to minimize the chances that civilians are hit. The children Ashton should be concerned over are the children of southern Israel.”