JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israeli leaders condemned remarks by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton that some interpreted as comparing the victims of an attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, to deaths in Gaza, but Ashton said her words were "grossly distorted."
At a conference Monday in Brussels on Palestinian refugees, Ashton reportedly said, "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 about what happened today in Toulouse, we remember what happened in Norway last year, we know what is happening in Syria, and we see what is happening in Gaza and other places — we remember young people and children who lose their lives."
Ashton’s reference to Belgian children referred to a recent deadly bus crash in Switzerland that killed 28 people.
Ashton said in a statement released Tuesday by a spokesperson for the EU Foreign Affairs Commission that her remarks were "grossly distorted by one of the news agencies." The statement said Ashton "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."
Later in the day, the EU released a revised transcript of Ashton’s statement in which she said, "and we see what is happening in Gaza and Sderot and other places." The French news agency AFP reported that a video of Ashton’s remarks shows that she did mention Sderot.
The statement also said that Ashton "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."
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, on a diplomatic visit to China, called on Ashton to retract her original remarks.
"Israel is the most moral country in the world and, despite the fact that we are forced to fight terrorists who operate from within the civilian population, the IDF does everything possible to prevent harm to civilians, even though they are protecting terrorists," he said. "No army in the world has a higher moral standard than the IDF, who endangers its own soldiers to minimize the risk to civilians."
Liberman added that the children Ashton should be thinking about are the children of southern Israel, "who live in constant fear of rocket attacks launched from Gaza."
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak also condemned Ashton’s remarks, calling them "outrageous and disconnected from reality."
"The IDF is operating in Gaza with the utmost care in order to prevent hurting the innocent," Barak said in a statement. "I hope the EU foreign affairs commissioner realizes her mistake quickly and retracts her statements."
StandWithUs France, a pro-Israel group that provides information about Israel in cities and on campuses worldwide, called for Ashton to retract her statement or resign from her post.
“This was an insensitive comment which was pandering to the Palestinian group Ashton was with, and it is incredibly hurtful to the victims and to the French Jewish community,” said Laurent Preece, director of StandWithUs France. “Her record regarding diplomacy and the Israeli-Arab conflict has been checkered at best, but these comments are beyond the pale. She should apologize immediately or resign her position.”