Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, in his strongest comments yet on the Gaza conflict, said on Wednesday the Palestinian militant group Hamas was not a terrorist organisation but a liberation group fighting to protect Palestinian lands.

NATO member Turkey condemned the civilian deaths caused by Hamas’s Oct. 7 rampage in southern Israel, but also urged Israeli forces to act with restraint in their response. Ankara has strongly criticised Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.

“Hamas is not a terrorist organisation, it is a liberation group, ‘mujahideen’ waging a battle to protect its lands and people,” he told lawmakers from his ruling AK Party, using an Arabic word denoting those who fight for their faith.

Unlike many of its NATO allies and the European Union, Turkey does not consider Hamas a terrorist organisation and hosts members of the group on its territory. Ankara backs a two-state solution to the decades-old Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Erdogan also slammed Western powers for supporting Israel’s bombing of Gaza and called for an immediate ceasefire, the unhindered entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza and for Muslim countries to work together to stop the violence.

“The perpetrators of the massacre and the destruction taking place in Gaza are those providing unlimited support for Israel,” Erdogan said. “Israel’s attacks on Gaza, for both itself and those supporting them, amount to murder and mental illness.”

Israel rejected Erdogan’s description of Hamas, with Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lior Haiat calling the group “a despicable terrorist organisation”.

“Even the Turkish president’s attempt to defend the terrorist organisation and his inciting words will not change the horrors that the whole world has seen,” Haiat wrote on social media platform X.

Erdogan’s comments also drew a swift rebuke from Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, who said they were “grave and disgusting and did not help with de-escalation”. He urged Italy’s foreign minister to lodge a formal protest with Ankara.

Shares in Istanbul dropped 7% on Wednesday in a slide that traders attributed to Erdogan’s comments on Hamas.

The fighting in Gaza comes at a time when Turkey is working to mend its ties with Israel after years of acrimony, focusing on energy as an area of cooperation.

Indicating that those normalisation efforts were now suspended, Erdogan accused Israel of taking advantage of Turkey’s “good intentions” and said he had cancelled a previously planned visit to Israel.

“I shook the hand of this man named Netanyahu one time in my life,” Erdogan said, referring to his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly last month.

“If he (Netanyahu) had continued with good intentions, our relations might have been different, but now, unfortunately, that will not happen either because they took advantage of our good intentions,” he added.

Erdogan accused the West of hypocrisy for failing to respond to what he called Israel’s “intentional massacre” in Gaza with the same decisiveness as it did to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.