Israeli minister says Sanders' Gaza death figures 'loony'

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - An Israeli cabinet minister described as “loony” on Thursday an account by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders of the number of Palestinian civilians killed in the 2014 Gaza war that went well beyond any official assessments.

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders listens to the first question at an African American Community Conversation town hall event in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania April 6, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Kauzlarich

The minister, Zeev Elkin, commenting on an interview by the Vermont senator in the New York Daily News on Monday, took a forgiving tack, saying politicians “sometimes make mistakes” in the heat of a campaign.

“I don’t remember the figures, but my recollection is over 10,000 innocent people were killed in Gaza. Does that sound right?” Sanders told the newspaper. “I do believe and I don’t think I’m alone in believing that Israel’s force was more indiscriminate than it should have been.”

Sanders, who trails Hillary Clinton in the pledged delegates needed to win the nomination ahead of the Democratic party’s July convention in Philadelphia, also criticized Gaza militants for launching rockets at Israel from civilian areas.

The war killed around 2,100 Palestinians, according to Gaza officials, Israel and foreign observers. The Palestinians say most of the dead were civilians. Israel says more than half were fighters. Israel lost 67 soldiers and six civilians in the war.

Asked about Sanders’ toll, Elkin, using the Israeli military’s term for the Gaza war, said in a radio interview: “Anyone who knows a little about what happened in Operation Protective Edge understands that this was a weird and loony statement.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has kept out of the often acrimonious U.S. election race - a practice that Elkin, one of his closest cabinet colleagues, endorsed.

“What is ultimately important is what they (candidates) do and not what they say in election campaigns,” Elkin, who serves as minister for Jerusalem and immigration, told Israel Radio.

“Therefore I recommend to us all that we get a little less excited about this-or-that statement that is made.”

On Wednesday, the Anti-Defamation League called on Sanders to correct his figures.

“As Mr. Sanders publicly discusses his approach to key U.S. foreign policy priorities ... accuracy and accountability are essential for the voting public, but also for U.S. credibility in the international community,” said ADL CEO Jonathan A. Greenblatt.

Sanders, who is Jewish, spent several months in Israel in the 1960s as a volunteer on a kibbutz, or communal farm.

“I lived in Israel. I have family in Israel. I believe 100 percent not only in Israel’s right to exist, a right to exist in peace and security without having to face terrorist attacks,” he told the New York Daily News.

He added: “I think the United States has got to help work with the Palestinian people as well. I think that is the path toward peace.”

Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Richard Balmforth