ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday that the Palestinian militant group Hamas was not a terrorist organization but a liberation group fighting to protect Palestinian land and people, in his harshest comments yet on the Gaza conflict.
Speaking to lawmakers from his ruling AK Party, Erdogan also called for an immediate ceasefire between Israeli and Palestinian forces and said Muslim countries must work together to secure lasting peace in the region.
“Hamas is not a terrorist organization, it is a liberation group, ‘mujahideen’ waging a struggle to protect their land and their people,” he said, using an Arabic word that describes those who fight for their faith.
Erdogan also criticized Western powers that had expressed support for Israel’s retaliation against Hamas, saying: “Western tears shed for Israel are an expression of betrayal.”
Many of Turkey’s NATO allies consider Hamas a terrorist group, and Erdogan’s comments drew a swift rebuke from Italy’s deputy prime minister who said they were “serious and disgusting and did not contribute to de-escalation.”
“I will suggest to my colleague (Foreign Minister Antonio) Tajani to lodge a formal protest and invite the Turkish ambassador,” Salvini said in a note.
Turkey has condemned the deaths of civilians caused by the Hamas rampage in southern Israel on October 7, but also called on Israel to respond with restraint.
It has since strongly condemned Israel’s heavy bombing of the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by the militant Islamist group, while offering to mediate in the conflict and sending several shipments of humanitarian aid.
Erdogan accused Israel of exploiting Turkey’s good intentions. Turkey had previously worked to improve long-strained relations with Israel, and Erdogan said he had now canceled a planned trip to Israel because of the events in Gaza.
Turkey, which hosts members of Hamas on its territory, supports a two-state solution to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Huseyin Hayatsever; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Ece Toksabay and Gareth Jones)