Friday, 23 March 2012

Don’t mention the Gaza

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was the object of fury in Israel this week - with the press, the pundits and even the prime minister all calling for her immediate sacking. Her crime? Mentioning the fact that children have been killed in Gaza.

Ashton was attending a Brussels conference on the subject of Palestinian children refugees on Monday when news came that three children had been shot and killed at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France. When she took to the podium to address the conference, Ashton broke the news. She then talked about how sad it is when a child loses a life, bringing up last week’s bus accident in Switzerland where 22 Belgian children were killed.
“The Belgian children have 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 [Israel], in different parts of the world — we remember young people and children who lose their lives,” she told the audience (video here).
 When news of her comments reached Israel, the reactions were swift and furious. Israeli papers said her comparison of the shooting of innocent Jewish children with the deaths of Palestinian children during Israeli shelling of Gaza was “grotesque”. They labelled Ashton as anti-Semitic, people compared her to a Nazi, and the papers demanded her immediate removal from office.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters Tuesday he was “infuriated” by the "comparison between a deliberate massacre of children and the defensive, surgical actions” of the Israeli military. These strikes, he said, were “intended to hit terrorists who use children as a human shield.” Interior minister Eli Yishai told Israel Radio that as long as Ashton remained in her post the EU could not act as an impartial broker in Israel-Palestinian peace talks. Similar fury came from the country’s defense minister and its foreign minister. It seemed there were few in the Israeli cabinet who did not want to weigh in on the controversy.

All of this was said before it emerged that the Tououse shooter was an Arab with links to Al-Qaeda who felt he was avenging the deaths of Palestinians. When the furious reactions were coming from Israel on Monday and Tuesday, the assumption was still that the shooter was a far-right French extremist.

The fact that Ashton’s list of aggrieved children also included the children in Sderot in southern Israel – who live in fear of rocket attacks launched from Gaza – did not seem to mollify the Israeli fury. The mere suggestion that we would ‘remember children in Gaza who lost their lives’ was unacceptable. Ashton was forced to call the Israeli foreign minister to apologize. But the damage in Israel has been done. She has now been labelled as an anti-Semite.

The fact that Ashton is European added fuel to the fire for the Israeli media, much of which perceives Europe as being hostile to Israel and anti-Semitic. It's become a familiar habit, launching into the same tried-and-true stereotypes and guilt-trips to silence criticism.

Were Ashton’s comments inept? Absolutely. It’s only the latest incident in what has been a generally inept tenure for Europe’s first foreign minister. Her strange list combining road accident victims with terrorism victims and war victims was ham-handed, to say the least. But anti-Semitic? Anti-Israel? That’s a stretch. Israel’s sadly typical reaction will not win it any new friends. The immediate leap to cry out with howls of anti-Semitism, even in this case when an actual criticism of Israel wasn’t even made, just looks foolish.

Not all of the Israeli media was jumping on the bandwagon however. Criticism of the Israeli government is usually far louder in Israel itself than in the US or Europe, and this was no exception. In an editorial entitled “Guilt-tripping the world is dangerous for Israel” published yesterday by Haaretz, the left-leaning Israeli paper lamented the unfortunate affair.
“It wasn't Ashton who lost her senses, but rather Israel, which is playing the role of the eternally offended party, once again seen in a maudlin light,” they wrote. “And this happened just as the world was responding compassionately to the victims [of the Toulouse shooting] and was remarkably empathetic toward Israel.”
The paper went on to say the criticism is cynical and easy, “when it comes from a relatively weak politician who isn't American.”
“No one would have ferociously attacked Ashton if she had been a representative of the United States,” they continued. “This attack on Ashton and others like her is suspect; it probably wasn't sincere. Perhaps once again we're cynically using a statesman's faux pas to wring more and more guilt feelings about Israel, to instil more and more fear into the world's statesmen and to make more and more worthless political hay.”
In the end, as Haaretz observes, the real loser here is Israel. Ashton has never before been perceived as anti-Israel – she’s never done or said anything to indicate that she represents anything other than the standard European line on the Palestinian conflict. If these Israeli politicians think they’ve won this skirmish because Ashton will think twice before making any comments about Gaza in the future, they are wrong. Ashton may now watch her tongue, but she’ll certainly hold a grudge against Israel for humiliating her. Even if Ashton’s time in her role is probably limited (member states are reportedly manoeuvring to get her out), the EU foreign service is not likely to forget this.

If Israel wonders why European media is not as deferential to them as their American counterparts, incidents like this would go a long way in explaining it. People don't like to be bullied.

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