Anger over Cameron Gaza comments

By Rob Lyons, July 29, 2010

Prime Minister David Cameron's description of Gaza as a "prison camp" prompted anger this week from all quarters.

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."

Last updated: 2:10pm, July 29 2010