EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton 390 (R).
(photo credit: REUTERS/Kimmo Mantyla/Lehtikuva)
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton’s clarification Tuesday of a statement she made Monday placing the Toulouse killings in the same basket as Israel’s actions in Gaza failed to dampen anger in Jerusalem over her remarks.
The “tragedy and cruelty” of the shootings in Toulouse, France that killed a father, his two children and an eightyear old girl was clear to all, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said during meetings with heads of the Technion in Haifa.
“We are talking about the vidui hariga of an eight-year-old girl,” he said, using a Hebrew military expression for making sure one’s target is dead.
“This is a wildness and lack of humanity that is difficult to describe,” he continued.
“What especially infuriates me is the comparison of the intended massacre of children to surgical defensive action taken by the IDF that is meant to hit terrorists who use children as human shields.”
Ashton, at a conference in Brussels with Palestinian youth organized by UNRWA, said, “We are gathered here because we have recognized the potential of the youth of Palestine. Against all the odds, they continue to learn, to work, to dream and aspire to a better future.
“And the days when 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 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 Sderot and in different parts of the world – we remember young people and children who lose their lives.”
Original reports of her speech omitted the words “and Sderot,” even though videos of her speech – and a full transcript put out later by the EU – show that she did mention the Negev city that comes under frequent missile attacks from Gaza.
Nevertheless, Israeli government sources said Ashton’s comments badly damaged her “reputation” and “credibility” in Israel. The Foreign Ministry’s deputy director-general Rafi Shutz phoned the EU ambassador to Israel Andrew Standley to protest her remarks.
Within hours of her words being reported, Ashton came under a barrage of sharp criticism – unusually blunt given her senior position – by Israel’s leaders.
The first came from Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, currently on a visit in China, who said that the comparison was inappropriate and that he hoped she would retract her statement. The children Ashton should be talking about, he said, “are the ones in southern Israel who live in constant fear of rocket attacks [launched against] them from Gaza.”
His comments were made before it became clear that she had mentioned Sderot in her talk.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak called Ashton’s comments “outrageous” and without any “grounding in reality.”
“I hope that Catherine Ashton quickly realizes her mistake and rethinks her comments,” he said.
Interior minister Eli Yishai went even further and called on her to resign, saying her remarks do additional damage to the EU’s ability to be a fair player in the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process.
Opposition head Tzipi Livni also called on her to retract the statements.
Following the uproar, Ashton’s spokesman issued a statement saying she “strongly condemns” the killings in Toulouse “and extends her sympathies to the families and friends of the victims and to the people of France and the Jewish community.
“We want to make this clear,” the statement said, “because her words yesterday at the UNRWA event were grossly distorted by one of the wires. 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.”