Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip ErdoganReuters

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday launched one of his strongest attacks yet on Israel over its military operation in the Gaza Strip, accusing the Jewish state of showing "Hitler-like fascism" against the Palestinians.

Speaking at a mass rally in eastern Turkey to promote his candidacy in presidential elections, Turkey's Islamist leader once again compared Israel to Nazi Germany saying he was happy to give back an award that was bestowed upon him by an American Jewish Group in 2004, reiterating comments made earlier this week.

The American Jewish Congress wants the decoration to be returned after protesting Erdogan's bitter attacks where he has compared Israel to the Third Reich which slaughtered millions of Jews in the Holocaust.  

"If you support this cruelty, this genocide, this Hitler-like fascism and child murderer regime, take your award back," Erdogan said at the election rally in the eastern province of Van.

In typically bombastic mood wearing a casual shirt and sunglasses, Erdogan showed no sign of reining in rhetoric that has angered not just Israel but also Ankara's NATO ally the United States.

"What is the difference between Israeli actions and those of the Nazis and Hitler?" he asked.  

"How can you explain what the Israeli state has been doing in Gaza, Palestine, if not genocide?" he said.

"This is racism. This is fascism. This is keeping Hitler's spirit alive," he added.

Erdogan, who presents himself as a champion of Palestinian rights, has heightened his criticism of the Israeli military campaign in Gaza, firing almost daily tirades at election rallies in the run-up to the August 10 presidential vote.

The premier has faced accusations of anti-Semitism from Israel and American Jewish groups but said the record of Turkey and himself on protecting Jews was irreproachable.

"Who stood up for Jews at a time when they were expelled from their home countries? It was our ancestors, it was the Ottomans," he said, referring to the sanctuary given to Jews expelled from Spain in the 15th century.

"Aren't you embarrassed? How immoral you are.... It is us who protects the Jews on our soil and lets them live safely."

Despite those denials, anti-Semitism in Turkey has risen considerably in the years since his Islamist AKP party took power, prompting many young Turkish Jews to leave the country - often to Israel.

Although violence against Jews is still relatively rare, there have been several instances in recent months of physical attacks against Jews, including one particularly shocking incident in which two Jewish businessmen were chased by a man wielding a sword-like implement.

American anti-hate watchdog the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), voiced its concerns over anti-Semitism in Turkey earlier this month, linking it to rising anti-Israel hysteria and urging Erdogan to do more to combat it.

But that shows little sign of happening. When a high-profile Turkish pop-singer posted a slew of anti-Semitic tweets - including one praising Hitler - the mayor of the country's capital city, and a prominent member of Erdogan's party, threw his support behind her comments.

And Erdogan himself has a sordid record of anti-Semitic statements evoking the holocaust. In 1998, prior to his stint as PM, Erdogan - then mayor of Istanbul - infamously declared that "the Jews have begun to crush the Muslims in Palestine, in the name of Zionism. Today, the image of the Jews is no different than that of the Nazis."

His rhetoric has already put an end to any chance of Turkey and Israel normalizing their relations, following the storming by Israel of a Turkish ship carrying aid to Gaza in 2010 that left 10 activists dead.