JERUSALEM -- U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz on Monday accused President Joe Biden of being soft on Israel's foes and inviting further violence during a deadly 11-day conflict that left Israelis rattled and turned parts of the Gaza Strip to rubble.
One of four prominent Republicans visiting Israel in the conflict's aftermath, Cruz, of Texas, told The Associated Press in an interview that the Democratic president's policies, including a call for Israel to wind down the battle, had "emboldened" Hamas' militant rulers. He said the U.S. owes Palestinians no humanitarian aid as long as there's a danger of that money flowing to Hamas.
Meanwhile, Hamas' top leader in the Gaza Strip on Monday expressed optimism about reaching a prisoner exchange with Israel, as Egyptian mediators seek to hammer out a long-term cease-fire.
After a day of touring Israel's Iron Dome rocket-defense system and viewing damage in Ashkelon, Cruz said: "The longer Joe Biden shows weakness to Hamas or Hezbollah or Iran, the more you're going to see terrorist attacks escalating."
The latest fighting broke out May 10 when Hamas launched a barrage of rockets at Jerusalem after weeks of protests and clashes over Israel's policing of a flash-point holy site and efforts by settler groups to evict Palestinian families in the nearby Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.
Before the cease-fire took effect May 21, Hamas had fired more than 4,000 rockets toward Israeli cities, while Israeli warplanes struck some 1,000 targets in Gaza. More than 250 people were killed, the vast majority of them Palestinians living in the seaside enclave ruled by Hamas. Israel blames Hamas for the heavy civilian casualties because it launches attacks from residential areas.
Throughout the fighting, Biden and many other world leaders maintained that Israel has a right to defend itself even as concern -- and protests in places such as Turkey, Pakistan and Britain -- mounted over the crippling use of force leveled at Gaza.
Cruz's remarks were a departure from a once-customary practice of refraining from talking domestic politics while overseas, particularly about the sitting U.S. commander in chief.
At least two of the four Republicans visiting Israel this week have apparent presidential ambitions -- and all are in hot pursuit of support from pro-Israel evangelical voters who are part of the GOP's base.
Besides Cruz, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who also served as former President Donald Trump's CIA director, tweeted Sunday that he was in Tel Aviv attending the retirement party of Mossad chief Yossi Cohen.
"Great to be with good friends in Tel Aviv!" Pompeo tweeted.
Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina was also meeting with Israeli leaders.
"No one has done more for Israel than you, Sen. Lindsey Graham," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday. Graham, standing next to him, held up a sign that said, "More for Israel." In a tweet later, he explained, to "help protect and defend from Hamas rocket attacks." Today, Graham is to tour rocket damage in Israel, he said in a news release.
Netanyahu enjoyed warm relations with Trump, alienating many segments of the Democratic Party. His relations with Biden have been cordial but cooler.
Cruz and Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., toured the rubble in Ashkelon where a Hamas-fired rocket hit an apartment and killed the caregiver of an older woman. Cruz tweeted photos.
Hagerty, who was Trump's ambassador to Japan, also criticized the various steps taken by Biden to reverse Trump's policies. Biden, for instance, has pledged some $360 million in aid to the Palestinians, including money to help repair the damage in Gaza. Trump cut off nearly all U.S. aid to the Palestinians.
"Any monies that go to the Gaza Strip that are quote, intended for infrastructure, can be easily diverted by Hamas," said Hagerty.
Where Hagerty was diplomatic, Cruz was blunt: "Appeasing terrorists doesn't produce peace," he said of Biden.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Cruz also declined to rule out another run for president in 2024, keeping alive the prospect of a new Republican brawl for the party's nomination -- and perhaps a rematch with Trump.
He said the 2016 campaign was "the most fun I've ever had in my life."
Yehiyeh Sinwar of Hamas spoke Monday after meeting with Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel, who visited Gaza a day after talks with Netanyahu on a trip aimed at shoring up the informal cease-fire brokered by Cairo.
Sinwar said "there is a real chance to make progress" in indirect negotiations that could involve the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, and the return of two Israeli citizens and the remains of two Israeli soldiers held by Hamas since the previous fighting in 2014.
Egypt often serves as a mediator between Israel and Hamas. Kamel, who has not given public statements, is the highest-ranking Arab official to visit Gaza since 2018.
"Today, by the grace of Allah, after this victory of May 2021, our Palestinian cause is making tangible and clear progress," Sinwar said.
Speaking to foreign reporters Monday, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said any reconstruction of Gaza would depend on progress on the issue of returning Israelis held by Hamas.
"We are willing to help with fixing the area, rebuilding it, construction, etc. But it's conditioned with the return of our boys back home, the abducted soldiers," he said.
Gantz also said the rules have changed in Israel's dealings with Hamas and vowed a much harsher response to any violations of the cease-fire.
"We will brutally retaliate, but we will do it in our own time and will not accept the previous reality to show itself again," he said.
Earlier on Monday, another senior Hamas official said Israel must halt its "aggression" in both Gaza and Jerusalem if it wants calm.
"We discussed several files, most importantly the necessity to oblige the occupation to stop its aggression on Gaza, Jerusalem, Sheikh Jarrah and all over Palestine," Khalil al-Haya told reporters. He said Israel must also fully lift the blockade it imposed on Gaza when Hamas seized power from rival Palestinian forces in 2007.
"If this happens, then calm and stability could return," he said.
Al-Haya ruled out linking Gaza's reconstruction to Hamas' release of Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, the two Israeli civilians held captive, and the remains of Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, two soldiers killed in the 2014 fighting. Instead, the militant group is likely to demand the release of a large number of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
Sinwar intimated Monday that Hamas is demanding the release of more than 1,100 prisoners held by Israel, more than the number freed in a 2011 exchange for captive Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit. Sinwar himself was freed from Israeli prison in that trade.
The Egyptian-brokered truce has held but did not address any of the underlying issues of the conflict. Israel and Hamas have fought four times since 2008.
On Sunday, Israeli troops shot a Palestinian man who sneaked into the country from the Gaza Strip with a knife. The military confirmed the incident Monday but did not provide details on his condition.
The military said the man carried a knife and infiltrated the fenced border near Moshav Sde Avraham, a few miles from the coastal territory. A security guard told Israeli media Monday that the suspect stabbed him.
The army said the man had been moved to a nearby hospital but his condition was not immediately known. Israeli authorities were trying to figure out how he got across the fenced border.
Information for this article was contributed by Laurie Kellman and Fares Akram of The Associated Press.