CAIRO – Egypt's powerful Muslim Brotherhood sharply criticized Israeli leaders on Tuesday over airstrikes in the Gaza Strip, accusing them of heating up the conflict to score political points ahead of elections.
The latest round of violence began Saturday, with rocket attacks from Gaza militants and Israeli airstrikes that killed seven Palestinians. More than 100 rockets have exploded in Israel since the weekend. The exchanges appeared to die down on Tuesday.
Also, Israeli tanks struck a Syrian artillery launcher Monday after a mortar shell flew into Israel-held territory, fueling concerns that Israel could be dragged into the Syrian civil war.
In its statement, the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party referred to Israel as a "Zionist occupier" and a "racist state," placing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on the "fringes" of the "far right."
"In the framework of elections that Israel is witnessing is a recent military escalation against occupied Gaza and the occupied Golan Heights," the statement said. Israel has set parliamentary elections for Jan. 22.
The Brotherhood's party called on Arab and Muslim governments "to stop the Zionist war that is operating under electoral calculations for personal gain far from humanitarian calculations for peace, security and stability."
The Muslim Brotherhood itself released a separate statement shortly after its party's, sharpening the criticism and accusing Israel of following a policy that tries to appear opposite itself "and God knows they are liars."
"The killing of tens of our innocent Palestinian brothers is part of a link in a chain of oppression and Judaization that seeks to impose itself on the ground, and that will never materialize with God's will," it said.
The harsh pronouncements followed a small demonstration in Cairo Monday and open letter signed by several liberal parties and revolutionary groups denouncing the Israeli strikes on Gaza.
The statements by both the Brotherhood and its political party highlight decades of tensions between neighbors Israel and Egypt, despite a 1979 peace treaty. The Islamists, repressed in Egypt under the regime that was ousted last year, have emerged as the most powerful group since last year's popular uprising. They won parliamentary elections and the presidency.
Last month, the group's supreme leader, Mohammed Badie, released a fiery tirade against Jews, accusing them of spreading corruption, slaughtering Muslims and desecrating holy sites. The comments were denounced by Israeli officials and a leading anti-Semitic watchdog group.
Unlike his predecessor, the ousted Hosni Mubarak, President Mohammed Morsi has not met Israeli officials since his election in June. He has also not mentioned Israel by name in official statements, in line with longstanding Brotherhood policy.
But to secure investments and bolster the economy, Morsi recently met with U.S. business executives from top American companies and vowed to respect his country's peace accord with Israel.
Since his election, Israel and Egypt have quietly cooperated over a military buildup in the Sinai Peninsula, where Islamist militants have been attacking Egyptian forces and launching attacks into Israel. The security coordination signals there is no significant shift in Cairo's policies toward Israel, despite the heated Brotherhood rhetoric.
Morsi has also indicated there will not be radical changes in policy anytime soon, even with Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which rules the Gaza Strip,.
Morsi's government still tightly controls Palestinian movement through the Rafah border crossing with Gaza. Egypt's role in a blockade of Gaza, imposed by Israel after Hamas won elections and later overran the territory in 2007, is highly unpopular.
Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 but controls its airspace, seacoast and most land crossings.
In a meeting in Cairo Tuesday with Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Morsi expressed his "full support" for Palestinian plans to seek nonmember state status at the United Nations.
Israel and the U.S. oppose the move.