By Gabriel Stargardter and Lisandra Paraguassu
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) -An unusual statement by Israeli spy agency Mossad saying it had helped foil a Hezbollah attack in Brazil is the latest incident to strain relations between Israel and Latin America’s largest nation against the backdrop of the Gaza war.
On Wednesday, Brazil arrested two people on terrorism charges as part of an operation to take down a suspected Hezbollah cell planning attacks on Brazilian soil. Later that day, Mossad publicly thanked Brazil’s police and said that, “given the backdrop of the war in Gaza,” Hezbollah was continuing to attack Israeli, Jewish and Western targets.
Mossad’s comments angered Brazilian Justice Minister Flavio Dino, who on Thursday delivered a stiff rebuke to Israel, saying on social media that “Brazil is a sovereign country,” and “no foreign force orders around the Brazilian Federal Police.”
Dino did not explicitly deny any of the details in the Israeli statement, but seemed more angered by its timing, tone and the link it drew to the current war in Gaza.
“We appreciate appropriate international cooperation, but we reject any foreign authority that deems to direct Brazilian police bodies, or use our investigations for the use of propaganda or its political interests,” he wrote, adding that Brazil’s probe had “nothing to do with international conflicts.”
A Brazilian Federal Police source said Dino was angry as the Mossad statement made it look like Brazil was taking orders from Israel and could be perceived to be taking sides in the war.
A spokesperson for the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, which oversees the Mossad, had no immediate comment.
Dino’s comments reflect growing unease among Brazilian officials with Israel’s conduct in the wake of the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas, and the subsequent bombardement of Gaza.
There are still some 30 Brazilians stuck in Gaza, weeks after the conflict began, and Brazil has grown increasingly irate with Israel over their slow release, two sources said. Brazil’s Foreign Ministry told Israel this week that the diplomatic relationship would become unsustainable if any harm were to befall the trapped Brazilians, the sources said.
Brazilian diplomats told Reuters they could not understand why Israel was slow-walking their release, given that President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has balanced criticism of the Hamas attacks with calls for a ceasefire. Latin American peers such as Bolivia, Colombia and Chile, have taken a much tougher line with Israel, severing ties or recalling their ambassadors.
Lula’s team was also irked when Israel’s ambassador to Brazil, Daniel Zonshine, during a visit to Brazil’s Congress on Wednesday, took pictures seated alongside former President Jair Bolsonaro and other far-right politicians ahead of a private meeting.
Bolsonaro, a Lula foe and staunch Israel supporter, holds no public office, has been ruled politically ineligible until 2030 and is the subject of multiple criminal probes, including one investigating whether he tried to stage a coup d’etat after losing last year’s election.
In an interview with O Globo newspaper after Wednesday’s Federal Police operation, Zonshine said that “if (Hezbollah) chose Brazil, it’s because they have people who help them.”
On Thursday, Federal Police chief Andrei Rodrigues told local media that Zonshine’s comments had been “disrespectful.”
“It was a bad surprise,” Rodrigues said. “I reject it completely.”
The Iranian government and Hezbollah, an Iran-backed group in Lebanon, could not immediately be reached for comment.
(Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter; Additional reporting by Maytaal Angel and Jonathan Saul; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Brad Haynes and David Gregorio)
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