The Egyptian foreign ministry denied reports that Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry recently said that the killing of Palestinian children by Israel did not amount to terrorism.
Shoukry drew criticism from Gaza’s Hamas rulers on Monday after reports surfaced according to which he told a group of high schoolers visiting the foreign ministry’s headquarters in Cairo that Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians don’t amount to “terrorism.”
According to reports in several Arab media outlets Monday, Shoukry was asked if Israeli policies amounted to terrorism.
“You can look at [the question of Israeli ‘terrorism’] from the perspective of a regime of force, but [looked at from a more traditional understanding] there is no evidence showing a link between Israel and armed terrorist groups,” Shoukry reportedly said.
One London-based newspaper critical of the Sissi government in Cairo, Al-Araby al-Jadeeda, headlined its report “Killing of Palestinian children does not constitute terrorism” –though that comment does not appear in the original reports of Shoukry’s comments.
According to a statement by the foreign ministry in Cairo, Shoukry never spoke about the killing of Palestinian children, and his comments were distorted by critics of his government. The statement said he was not asked about the killing of innocent children, but about why the international community does not call Israeli actions terrorism.
His response, the statement said, was that there was no international consensus regarding the legal definition of the term.
“Anyone who listens to the tape [of Shoukry’s comment] will understand” his intent, a foreign ministry spokesman said Monday night.
Shoukry’s comment was seen as the latest sign of warming relations between Jerusalem and Cairo, as well as Egypt’s increasingly frigid stance toward Hamas, which it sees as allied with Islamic State-affiliated insurgents in the Sinai Peninsula.
But it was also seized upon by critics of the Egyptian regime.
Earlier Monday, a senior Hamas spokesman lashed out at Shoukry for his purported statement.
“Someone who doesn’t see in the crimes of the Zionist occupation terrorism is blind,” Hamas’s international spokesman Husam Badran wrote in a tweet Monday.
In his meeting with the high schoolers Sunday, Shoukry also said Israel’s strong concerns regarding its security can be understood given its history.
“Certainly Israel has, in accordance with its own history, a society in which the security element is very strong,” he said. “From Israel’s perspective, since 1948, that society has faced many challenges that have instilled in it its national security doctrine, its control of land and border crossings.”
The comments came before Israel carried out intense strikes on Hamas posts in Gaza Sunday night in response to an earlier rocket attack. The raids drew condemnation from Turkey, which said a newly inked reconciliation deal with Jerusalem would not prevent it from criticizing the Jewish state and defending Palestinians.
Israeli military officials believe that despite ideological differences, Hamas in Gaza is cooperating with extremists affiliated with Islamic State or other armed groups in Egypt’s neighboring Sinai region. They praise Egypt’s crackdown on Hamas’s cross-border smuggling tunnels, which had been a main conduit for weapons into Gaza, and say the Egyptian military is doing an admirable job in a fierce battle against IS militants in Sinai.
Analysts have noted in recent months a growing friendliness between Egypt and Israel, which had maintained a cold peace for some 30 years.
The two countries jointly maintain a blockade of Gaza, defended by Israel as a means of keeping Hamas and other terror groups in the Strip from rearming.
Sissi, who as army chief overthrew his elected but divisive predecessor, the Islamist Mohammed Morsi in 2013, has helped Israel further isolate the Hamas organization ruling the Gaza Strip. Hamas had close ties with the former Egyptian leader and is rooted in Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Israel often praises Sissi for his tough stance on terrorism, and considers him a key ally in what it sees as a shared battled against Islamic extremists.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Sissi often speak on the phone. Last May, Netanyahu welcomed what he described as Sissi’s “willingness” to help advance the peace process with the Palestinians, after Sissi said that Egypt’s relations with Israel could be warmer if it made peace with the Palestinians.
In July, Shoukry made a rare visit to Jerusalem — the first by an Egyptian foreign minister since 2007 — to promote Sissi’s proposal to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
According to a Channel 2 report at the time, Shoukry’s surprise visit was also aimed at arranging a first meeting between Sissi and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the coming months.
His visit, the TV report said, was coordinated between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, whose Arab Peace Initiative is backed by Sissi and much of the Arab world as the basis of any regional peace effort. Netanyahu has rejected that initiative in its current form, but said earlier this year that it “contains positive elements that could help revive constructive negotiations with the Palestinians.”
Last week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also indicated his willingness to participate in a trilateral Israeli-Egyptian-Palestinian peace summit in Cairo.
Shoukry’s comments on the Jewish state Sunday came as an Israeli delegation reportedly arrived in Cairo for meetings with their Egyptian counterparts to discuss the renewed peace efforts.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.