DAMASCUS, Syria – Syria praised Turkey Tuesday for canceling international military exercises that were to include Israel, saying doing so amounted to a reprimand for the country's occupation of Arab lands.
The Palestinian militant group Hamas also applauded the Turkish decision, saying other Muslim nations should take similar steps, including to cut ties with Israel.
Israeli defense officials have said the international military exercises, which were supposed to be held this week in Turkey and to include the U.S. and NATO, were scrapped over Turkish opposition to Israel's participation.
Initially, Turkey said the reason was not political. But its foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, later linked the cancellation to Israel's war in the Gaza Strip last December and January.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Tuesday: "We encourage such cancellations as long as Israel is continuing its aggression and occupation (of Arab territories)." He made the comment during a press conference with Turkey's visiting foreign minister.
In Lebanon, a senior Hamas official, Ali Baraka, said Turkey's actions underlined its "responsibility" toward the Palestinians.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Tuesday tried to play down the tension with Turkey.
"Turkey is an important and central country in our region. Israel has had strategic relations with it for dozens of years," Barak said during a visit to the Czech Republic. "Despite the ups and downs of our relationship, the ties between both states are important to us and to the Turks and therefore the links between the states won't be harmed."
Israel's foreign minister, however, said the development was part of a negative trend in Turkey's relationships in the region, including its pursuit of closer ties with Syria.
Turkey has long been the Jewish state's closest ally in the Muslim world. But ties have deteriorated since Israel's war against Hamas in Gaza.
Syria's own peace efforts with Israel — aimed at a return of the Golan Heights — have been stalled. Turkey mediated indirect Syrian-Israeli talks last year.
Davutoglu told reporters in Syria that Turkey was willing to resume that effort when the time is right.
"When there is a will and an appropriate situation, we are ready to exert efforts for peace in the region," the Turkish foreign minister said.