Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday castigated EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton for purportedly equating the killings of children in Toulouse on Monday and the deaths of children in Gaza.

Ashton denied making the comparison, and said her comments — to Palestinian children at an UNRWA event in Brussels on Monday — were “grossly distorted.”

“It is unthinkable to compare a massacre [as in Toulouse] and the Israeli army’s surgical, defensive actions against those who use children as human shields,” Netanyahu said at a meeting with local council heads in Haifa.

Netanyahu’s comments came after a succession of other Israeli leaders had slammed Ashton, with some calling on her to retract her statement or step down, and after the French ambassador to Israel had bitterly rejected any Toulouse-Gaza parallel.

In response, a spokesman for Ashton said her comments were “grossly distorted” by one of the news agencies, but did not provide an alternative text of the comments. “In her remarks, the High Representative referred to tragedies taking the lives of children around the world and drew no parallel whatsoever between the circumstances of the Toulouse attack and the situation in Gaza,” the spokesman said.

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 spokesman said.

MK Danny Danon, who said the clarification was sent in response to a committee he convened on the matter, welcomed the clarification.

Danon had earlier called on Ashton to resign. “The Envoy’s words show the true face of the EU’s hostility towards Israel. I have demanded that she apologize immediately or resign from her position. There is no place for such a heinous comparison,” he said in the committee meeting.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon and others earlier condemned Ashton for reportedly citing Monday morning’s slaying of three Jewish children in Toulouse in a series of cases of deaths of children in various “terrible circumstances” around the world, including those killed in Gaza.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak also took issue with Ashton’s comments, saying she had erred and that he hoped she would retract. Opposition Kadima leader Tzipi Livni echoed the criticism.

Calling Ashton’s statements “inappropriate” for their implied equation of the Toulouse case with the deaths of children in Israeli Army actions in Gaza, Lieberman defended the IDF: “The Israeli army is the most moral army in the world, whose soldiers desperately work to minimize civilian casualties… despite having to fight terrorists operating within a civilian population.”

Lieberman, who is currently visiting China, said he hoped Ashton would review her comments and retract them, adding that he would like to hear her opinion on the plight of Israeli children living in fear of rocket attacks from Gaza.

Ashton, speaking at an UNRWA youth event in Brussels on Monday, was quoted as citing a list of events — including the deaths of the French children, deaths of Belgian children in a recent bus accident, killings in Syria, Gaza, and the massacre of more than 70 people by Anders Breivik in Norway last year — as examples of children losing their lives ”in all sorts of terrible circumstances.”

“When we remember young people who have been killed in all sorts of terrible circumstances — the Belgian children having 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 in different parts of the world — we remember young people and children who lose their lives,” she reportedly said.

Ashton congratulated the perseverance of Palestinian youth. “Against all the odds, they continue to learn, to work, to dream and aspire to a better future,” she was quoted as telling them.

Opposition chairwoman Tzipi Livni also spoke out against Ashton’s remarks. “The EU’s foreign minister’s comparison between the murdered children in Toulouse, murdered children in Syria and the situation in Gaza is inaccurate and annoying. A hate crime or a leader killing his people are not the same as a country fighting terror, even if civilians are killed,” said Livni.

During a meeting of the Knesset panel on the attack, Independence party MK Einat Wilf also remarked on Ashton’s comments. “I expect that President Sarkozy sharply condemn Ashton’s statements. Someone who makes such comparisons is not fitting to lead such an institution as the EU,” she said.

Some 25 people were killed in Gaza during the recent cross-border hostilities with Israel. Almost all were associated with terrorist organizations there. A Palestinian claim that a child had been killed by an Israeli air strike at a Gaza funeral was subsequently acknowledged as false; the death was a result of gunfire unleashed at the funeral.