A senior Hamas spokesman lashed out at Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on Monday after the latter reportedly said Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians don’t amount to “terrorism.”
The comment from Shoukry was 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.
“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 an unusual display of understanding from a senior Arab official, Egypt’s Shoukry on Sunday reportedly told a group of high school students in Cairo that Israel’s policies toward Palestinians do not constitute terrorism and that Israel’s strong concerns regarding its security can be understood given its history.
“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 told students visiting the Foreign Ministry headquarters in Cairo, according to a report on the Ynet news website.
“There is no conclusive [proof] leading to that conclusion,” he said.
Shoukry’s remarks came in response to a student who asked the foreign minister why Israel and the United States were not considered terror organizations by the international community despite their ongoing military operations in the region.
According to one report from the meeting, by the Qatar-affiliated London-based Al-Araby al-Jadeed newspaper, which is historically critical of President Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi’s government in Egypt, the student asked if Israel’s killing of Palestinian children could be considered terror.
However the question was phrased, Shoukry noted Israel’s security concerns were rooted in 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.
Israel has allowed Egypt to move heavy weapons like tanks, artillery and attack helicopters into the restive Sinai Peninsula to fight extremists including a local Islamic State affiliate, overlooking provisions in the landmark 1979 peace treaty between the two countries. The two sides also are considered to have close intelligence ties.
Analysts have noted in recent months a growing friendliness between Egypt and Israel, which had maintained a cold peace for some 30 years.
“This is one of the best times we’ve ever had” in terms of cooperation between governments, Israeli ambassador to Cairo Haim Koren said in July.
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.
Yet despite friendliness in the halls of power, many on the Egyptian street remain wary of Israel. Earlier this month, Egyptian judoka Islam el Shehaby drew boos for refusing to shake the hand of Israeli opponent Or Sasson after a match at the Rio Olympics. He was officially censured by both the International Olympic Committee and the local Egyptian one, though some in Egypt praised the move.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.