Catrina Stewart in Jerusalem, 28 July 2010
Here is the reaction of the Board of Deputies
And here the howls of outrage from Conservative Friends of Israel and others in Anger over Cameron Gaza comments
David Cameron signalled a toughening stance on Israel yesterday by comparing the besieged Gaza Strip to “a prison camp” and urging Israel to end its three-year blockade.
Mr Cameron’s comments will carry additional diplomatic weight because they were made in Turkey, which has threatened to sever ties with Israel after its deadly assault on a flotilla carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza.
In a stopover on his way to India, Mr Cameron launched a diplomatic offensive aimed at bolstering Turkey’s bid to join the European Union and enlisting its support in the efforts to stop Iran from building a nuclear bomb.
In comments that will play well in Turkey, Mr Cameron frankly addressed the situation in Gaza. Speaking to business leaders in Ankara, Mr Cameron condemned Israel’s land and sea blockade of Gaza, aimed at weakening the Islamist group Hamas, which seized control of the strip in 2007.
“Let me be clear that the situation in Gaza has to change,” said Mr Cameron, reiterating comments that he made earlier to the House of Commons. “Gaza cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp.”
Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, applauded Mr Cameron’s words, and repeated his condemnation of the flotilla assault in international waters, comparing it to Somali piracy.
Israel’s relations with Turkey, already strained after the 2008-2009 Gaza conflict, further deteriorated when Israeli commandos boarded the lead ship of a flotilla aimed at breaching the Gaza blockade. Israeli troops killed nine activists, mostly Turks, prompting an international outcry.
Mr Cameron yesterday reiterated earlier comments that the attack was “unacceptable” and called for a “swift, transparent and rigorous” investigation of the raid.
Israel has closely linked the continuing blockade to its own security concerns and to Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier taken captive by Islamic militants four years ago.
“The people of Gaza are the prisoners of the terrorist organisation Hamas,” said Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to the UK. “The situation in Gaza is the direct result of Hamas’s rule and priorities.”
Nevertheless, Israel conceded recently that its blockade has strengthened, not weakened, Hamas, and bowed to international pressure to allow in more goods, including some building materials.
The blockade has shattered Gaza’s economy, forcing some 80 per cent of Palestinians on to international handouts. Unemployment is rife, and Israel does not allow the export of goods, forestalling any economic recovery.
Critics say that Israel’s overall policy has not changed. Palestinians are still not allowed in and out, other than in exceptional circumstances, and the inflow of goods, mostly consumer, is still inadequate for Gaza’s needs.
Sari Bashi, executive director of the Israeli Gisha human rights group, said Israel’s policy was “collective punishment”. “Innocent people are being prevented from accessing education, economic opportunities, family members and even medical care,” she said.
Mr Cameron was in Turkey to woo Ankara, a strategic ally in the Middle East that has acted as an important bridge between East and West.
Throwing his support behind Turkey’s stalled bid to join the European Union, he said the club would be “not stronger but weaker” for its absence. Mr Cameron added: “I’m here to make the case for Turkey’s membership of the EU. And to fight for it.”
Turkey’s bid, however, is likely to encounter resistance from France and Germany, which have both blocked it since accession talks began in 2005. Stumbling blocks include Turkey’s refusal to recognise Greek Cyprus and its treatment of the Kurdish minority.
Mr Cameron said, though, that Turkey had earned its place in the club. “When I think about what Turkey has done to defend Europe as a Nato ally, and what Turkey is doing today in Afghanistan alongside our European allies, it makes me angry that your progress towards EU membership can be frustrated in the way it has been,” said Mr Cameron. “I believe it’s just wrong to say Turkey can guard the camp but not be allowed to sit inside the tent.”
He said that Turkey, which wants to strengthen ties with Iran, remained one of Europe’s few allies who would carry influence in Tehran to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapon. “It’s Turkey that can help us stop Iran from getting the bomb,” he said.
The Board issued a brief statement yesterday (27 July) regarding PM Cameron’s comments in Turkey:
Vivian Wineman, Board President said:
“If the new Government wishes to be a credible player in the Middle East Peace Process, it should avoid one-sided, emotive language.”
Rob Lyons, 29 July 2010
Mr Cameron, addressing Turkish businessmen in Ankara on Tuesday, declared: “The Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla was completely unacceptable.” And in reference to the Israeli blockade, he added: “Gaza cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp.”
The remarks led to consternation that the PM should apparently use criticism of Israel as a vehicle by which to promote closer relations with Turkey.
The president of the Board of Deputies, Vivian Wineman, said: “If the new government wishes to be a credible player in the Middle East peace process, it should avoid one-sided, emotive language.”
Stuart Polak, director of Conservative Friends of Israel, said: “In calling Gaza a ‘prison camp’ the Prime Minister has failed to address Hamas’s role in creating the Gaza we see today.
“His words certainly did not reflect the wider context. I’m sure this will be urgently addressed. This oversight is regrettable as he has never pulled any punches where Hamas is concerned… he has always been very clear on what sort of organisation it is, and that there should be no moral equivalence with Israel.”
Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP for Harlow, said bluntly: “I do not agree with David Cameron. His comments were not helpful…It is Hamas which is to blame for turning Gaza into a prison camp, not the Israelis.
“Israel was right to attack the flotilla. Israel has to protect itself and stop bombs reaching Gaza.”
Conservative peer and former party treasurer, Lord Kalms, said: “His comments were very disconcerting. What concerns me is that they are incomplete and inaccurate. Does he not understand the situation in Gaza?”
Such was the level of anger that 10 Downing Street issued a so-called ‘line to take’ briefing for Conservatives which, while not withdrawing his “prison camp” accusation, tried to backtrack by suggesting that his words were uncontroversial.
It said: “The PM has made clear that he is a friend of Israel. It is not in doubt.”
The comments, however, have led to accusations that Mr Cameron has been influenced by his Lib Dem coalition partners. Liverpool Labour MP Louise Ellman said: “I was very surprised that his comments were so partisan, and that he failed to recognise Hamas as the source of the problem. There is always a suspicion that the Lib Dems have influenced the PM because of their hardline hostility to Israel.”
In his Ankara press conference Mr Cameron insisted that he had not said anything which he had not previously said in the Commons.
But Jonathan Hoffman, co-vice chair of the Zionist Federation, observed: “It is galling to see David Cameron parroting so mindlessly and comprehensively the script of the FCO Camel Corps, which under Erdogan has seemingly extended its reach into Turkey.
“Bibi Netanyahu could just as easily call Helmand Province in Afghanistan a ‘prison camp’…The government might find their new Jewish supporters deserting them in droves.”
David Cairns MP, of Labour Friends of Israel’s parliamentary executive, said: “Barely two months into the coalition government, David Cameron has used some very unfortunate language for a tragic and complex situation.
“We have always said that Cameron is a PR man willing to say anything to please an audience. For the sake of Britain’s global standing and achieving peace in the Middle East, he needs to prove that this isn’t the case.”
But the Tory MP for Finchley and Golders Green, Mike Freer, who wooed the Jewish vote in the run-up to the general election, urged people not to over-react.
He said: “David Cameron remains a friend of Israel, but friends can still criticise if and when they feel they get things wrong.
“Governments have disagreements. That’s grown-up politics. The community needs to be mature enough not to take his comments out of context.”