CAIRO (AP) -- Thousands of Egyptians protested against Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip on Friday as Egypt’s prime minister visited the Palestinian enclave in a symbolic show of support for the territory’s Hamas rulers.
The protests in Egypt highlight public sentiment against the Israeli military operation in Gaza. The latest operation started with the assassination of Hamas’ military chief. Israel says it is responding to rocket fire by Gaza militants.
At least 22 Palestinians, including 12 militants and six children, as well as three Israelis have been killed in three days of fierce exchanges between the Israeli military and Gaza militants.
Egyptians on Friday marched in the country’s two largest cities, Cairo and Alexandria, many waving Palestinian flags and chanting slogans against Israel. In Cairo’s Tahrir Square, a few hundred protesters burned an Israeli flag.
The demonstrations were called by Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood group.
Prominent Brotherhood figures took part, many brandishing the checkered Palestinian scarf, or keffiyeh, during the marches. Hamas is a Brotherhood offshoot in the Gaza Strip.
Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president, has faced calls at home to take stronger action over the Gaza offensive. He has recalled Egypt’s ambassador from Tel Aviv in protest and on Friday he dispatched Prime Minister Hesham Kandil to Gaza in a show of support for the Hamas-ruled territory.
Israel said it was halting its incessant air attacks on Gaza during Kandil’s brief visit.
Also in Cairo on Friday, influential cleric Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi said the Islamic world would not be silent in the face of Israel’s military operation in Gaza.
The Egyptian-born al-Qaradawi, who is based in Qatar but has millions of followers around the world and is seen as one of most influential voices in Sunni Islam, delivered a special Friday sermon. The speech was heavily laced with comments about the Gaza offensive, the Arab Spring revolts and the ongoing civil war in Syria.
“Our (Muslim) community is the strongest community,” he said from Cairo’s al-Azhar Mosque to thousands of worshippers packed close to one another. “Israel, the arrogant supremacist on the ground, cannot break this community with its missiles, weapons from the air, ground and sea, or with its nuclear bombs.”
Under autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak, who was overthrown in a popular uprising in early 2011, al-Qaradawi was largely exiled from Egypt. Mubarak’s regime built close ties with Hamas’ Palestinian rival, Fatah.
Since 2007, Mubarak’s government helped Israel in blockading Gaza and kept Egypt’s only border crossing with the coastal strip closed for part of the three-week Israeli offensive in the territory in the winter of 2008-2009.
Egyptians, watching that incursion over Arab satellite TV channels, were infuriated by what they perceived as Mubarak’s siding with Israel.
“We tell Israel, ‘No. No we do not accept the injustice. We do not accept those killing our brothers’,” Qaradawi said.
He spoke from the same pulpit where Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh delivered a symbolic speech in February—a move unthinkable under Mubarak’s 30-year-rule—saying that the path to Jerusalem starts in Cairo. The phrase is a rallying call among pro-Palestinian activists for wresting Jerusalem from Israeli control.