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Belgian Diplomat Disowns Offensive "Holocaust" Remarks
ICEJ NEWS - 04/25/2001
Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel insisted on Tuesday that he has been on his best behavior during his visit to Israel, vigorously denying he had compared the plight of Palestinians to the suffering of Jews during the Holocaust.
The French news agency AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE (AFP) yesterday reported remarks by Michel during a visit to Khan Yunis in southern Gaza in which he accused Israel of using methods against the Palestinians once employed by the Nazis against European Jews. But AFP later retracted the story and asked subscribers not to use it "because the minister did not say the things attributed to him."
Israel's Foreign Ministry said that as far as it was concerned, the AFP retraction of the story closed the incident. Michel, whose country assumes the rotating presidency of the European Union on July 1, delayed his departure for Damascus last night to receive an apology from AFP, the Belgian Embassy in Tel Aviv claimed.
The embassy explained that the comments had been transcribed from an audiotape made during Michel's visit to Palestinian-ruled areas in Gaza. The voice making the remarks was wrongly identified as that of Michel, while the speaker was in fact a reporter for Belgian news agency BELGA accompanying the minister. The embassy added that during his visit here, Michel toured Yad Vashem to see the horrors of the Holocaust and thus there was absolutely no room for such a comparison.
Michel later came to his own defense, telling ITIM, "How could such words be attributed to me, when I could never ever say such things... During my entire visit to the region I made a great effort to remain neutral and objective."
The AFP story was repeatedly broadcast on Israeli and Palestinian radio until Michel went on ISRAEL RADIO in the late afternoon to clarify his remarks. "I know there is no comparison possible at all," Michel said in the live interview by telephone. He said he expressed hope that the Jewish people would understand the suffering of the Palestinians, considering Jewish suffering in history, but he did not mean to equate Israeli actions with those of the Nazis. "It would not be honest of me to compare such situations," he said, sounding distraught. He said he publicly criticized a Belgian member of parliament for making just that comparison.
At the stop in the Khan Yunis refugee camp, Michel says he expressed sympathy for the suffering of the people there, but told the Palestinians, "there are two parties to the conflict, there are two truths." He insisted that despite Palestinian requests, he refused to take sides in the conflict. He urged that both parties make efforts to reduce violence and resume negotiations.
Michel also visited Ramallah yesterday for talks with Yasser Arafat, and reportedly told the PLO chief he should call for an end to the violence by giving a public speech. Afterwards, Arafat told reporters, "We appreciate the efforts of Belgium to bring the peace process back on track. We explained the details of what needs to be done to save us from the position we have been put in by the Israeli escalation." Asked about the spate of Palestinian bombing attacks in recent days, Arafat said he opposed "any and every operation targeting civilians, whether they are Palestinians or Israelis."
On Monday, Michel scrapped plans to tour the Old City of Jerusalem's holy sites, after Israeli police and the Islamic Waqf could not reach agreement on who would provide security for his visit to the Temple Mount. A Belgian Consulate official said the Waqf would not allow Israeli security on the mount, and as a result Michel canceled his visit out of "sensitivity" to Israeli concerns.
Israeli officials were anxious about Michel's regional tour, after he reportedly threatened in February to recall Belgium's ambassador and recommend the EU impose economic sanctions against Israel because of its response to the intifada. Belgium has emerged as the most vociferous European critic of Israel's actions in its conflict with the Palestinians.
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.