Last updated: March 20, 2012 3:36 pm

Ashton slammed for Toulouse-Gaza link

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Israeli leaders have hit out at Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief, over a speech in which she appeared to compare Monday’s shooting attack on a Jewish school in France to the suffering of children in the Gaza Strip.

Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, said: “The comparison made by Ashton between what is happening in Gaza to what happened in Toulouse, and what is going on in Syria every day, is outrageous and has absolutely no grounding in reality.”

He added: “The IDF [Israeli army] operates in Gaza with great care and precision in order to protect the lives of innocents. I hope that Catherine Ashton quickly realises her mistake and rethinks her comments.”

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, also weighed into the controversy later on Tuesday, saying he was “especially upset about the comparison between the intentional slaughter of children and the IDF’s surgical defensive strikes meant to hit terrorists who use children as a shield. There’s no comparison between the two.”

Almost 24 hours after the speech was given, Lady Ashton’s staff corrected the transcript of the speech on her website to show that in addition to citing Gaza among her list of sites where children have been killed, she also mentioned Sderot, the Israeli town near the Gaza Strip which has been the target of rocket attacks fired by Palestinian militias. Although EU officials removed a video of the speech from an EU website, people who watched it said Lady Ashton had indeed referred to “what is happening in Gaza and Sderot”.

Earlier on Tuesday a spokesman for Lady Ashton insisted that her remarks had been “grossly distorted” and that she condemned the attack in Toulouse.

“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,” the spokesman said.

Speaking to a group of Palestinian children in Brussels on Monday, Lady Ashton mentioned a series of deadly incidents in which children were victims, including the shooting attack in Norway last year as well as that day’s killing of three children and one teacher in Toulouse.

According to the original text of the speech published on her website, Lady Ashton said: “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 different parts of the world – we remember young people and children who lose their lives.”

At least one Palestinian child was killed and 17 others injured this month in the latest escalation between Israel and militant groups in the Gaza Strip. According to B’tselem, the Israeli human rights group, at least 13 Gaza minors below the age of 18 were killed by Israeli fire in the past year.

Mr Barak’s criticism was echoed by Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli foreign minister, who called Lady Ashton’s comments “inappropriate” and urged the EU’s chief diplomat to retract her statement. Mr Lieberman added: “Israel is the most moral country in the world, despite having to fight terrorists operating from within a civilian population. The IDF is doing everything it can to not hurt that population even though it is defending terrorists.”

It is rare for senior Israeli leaders to voice such harsh criticism of a European official. The assault on Lady Ashton comes as a particular surprise – there has been no noticeable tension between her and the Israeli government in recent years, and she rarely makes overt criticism of Israeli policies.

European officials voiced surprise at the response in Israel, pointing out that Lady Ashton had made a general statement about the suffering of children, and that she had had no intention of comparing the specific circumstances of Toulouse, Syria and the Gaza Strip. One described the Israel uproar as “ludicrous”.

Additional reporting by Peter Spiegel

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