JERUSALEM, Israel -- E.U. Foreign Policy chief Baroness Catherine Ashton said she "did not draw any parallels whatsoever" between the Jewish children murdered in France Monday and Palestinian Arab children in the Gaza Strip.
About 8:00 a.m. Monday, a lone gunman opened fire at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, killing Rabbi Yonatan Sandler, 30, his two sons, Aryeh, 6, and Gavriel, 3, and Miriam Monsonego, 8, the principal's daughter.
Ashton made the controversial statement in Brussels yesterday after meeting with a group of Palestinian youth.
"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," the baroness said.
"We see before our eyes all the children who have lost their lives," she said, especially Palestinian Arab children who "against all odds, continue to study, work, dream and aspire for a better future," Israel National News reported.
In response to widespread reaction to her earlier remarks, Ashton's spokesperson issued a statement on her behalf Tuesday afternoon from E.U. headquarters in Brussels.
"High Representative Catherine 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," the statement read, adding that she "did not draw any parallels whatsoever between the murders at the Ozar Hatorah school, which she strongly condemns, and the situation in Gaza."
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, on a state visit to China, called her intial remarks "inappropriate," saying he hoped she would "retract her statement."
By implication, Ashton alleged that Israeli responses to Palestinian rocket attacks -- in which a child may inadvertently be injured or killed -- is on a par with the children who were gunned down at a Jewish school.
Lieberman reminded the E.U. chief that Israel "makes every possible effort not to harm that population."
"Israel is the most moral country in the world," Lieberman said, "and despite the fact that it has to fight terrorists who operate from within civilian populations, the IDF makes every effort possible not to harm that population, despite their defense of terrorists."
"No army is as ethical as the Israeli army," he said. "The IDF risks its soldiers' lives to minimize the risk to the civilian population. The children Ashton should be worried about are those living in southern Israel, who are in constant fear of Gaza rocket fire," Liberman said.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak also sharply criticized Ashton's remarks.
"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," Barak said in a statement Tuesday. "The IDF operates in Gaza with great care and precision in order to protect the lives of innocents. I hope that Catherine Ashton quickly realizes her mistake and rethinks her comments."
On behalf of the U.S. government, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland offered condolences to the victims' families, saying America was "shocked and saddened to learn of the horrific attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse, France."