The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have regularly clashed in public forums

Ankara (AFP) - Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday blasted Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu as a “tyrant” who “massacred” Palestinian children as the two leaders exchanged insults in their latest spat.

Erdogan was responding to comments from Netanyahu earlier on Wednesday slamming the Turkish leader as a “dictator” and “a joke”, after a day of tit-for-tat exchanges between officials in both countries.

Turkey and Israel have tense relations and Erdogan, who regards himself as a champion of the Palestinian cause, is a vocal critic of Israeli policies. The two leaders have exchanged barbs in the past over Gaza.

“Hey Netanyahu, behave yourself. You are a tyrant, you are a tyrant who massacred seven-year-old Palestinian children,” Erdogan told a rally of supporters in the Turkish capital Ankara.

Erdogan also refered to clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians in Jerusalem, denouncing Israeli security forces for entering a “holy place”.

Erdogan warned Israel not to "provoke" Turkey

“Do not provoke. Look, we have not oppressed any of the Jews in this country. We have not done anything you did to any synagogues here. Don’t provoke us. We will not fall into this trap.”

The latest exchange came after Netanyahu had called Israel the nation-state of “the Jewish people” only, not all its citizens. That prompted Turkey on Tuesday to accuse the Israeli leader of “blatant racism”.

Netanyahu struck back in a statement from his office early Wednesday.

“Turkey’s dictator Erdogan attacks Israel’s democracy while Turkish journalists and judges fill his prisons,” it read. “What a joke!”

Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin was swift to respond on Twitter, accusing Netanyahu of attacking Erdogan “for exposing him” after the Israeli premier’s “racist remarks” towards Arabs and Muslims.

“The apartheid state he leads occupies Palestinian lands, kills women & children & imprisons Palestinians in their own land,” he wrote.

The two countries in 2016 ended a six-year rift triggered by the Israeli storming of a Gaza-bound ship that left 10 Turkish activists dead and led to a downgrading of diplomatic ties.

Netanyahu has been accused by critics of demonising Israeli Arabs, who make up some 17.5 percent of the population, in a bid to boost right-wing turnout for April polls.

- Tough challenge -

After the polls, Netanyahu will also face a hearing to defend himself against corruption allegations which have dogged his campaign.

“That robber at the helm of Israel is currently on trial in his country,” Erdogan also said, referring to the Israeli leader.

Netanyahu faces a tough challenge from centrists in elections in April

Netanyahu is facing a tough challenge from a centrist political alliance led by former military chief of staff Benny Gantz and ex-finance minister Yair Lapid.

Netanyahu’s initial comment had come amid an online spat sparked by Israel’s right-wing firebrand culture minister Miri Regev, ahead of the April elections and subsequently joined by Israeli Hollywood star Gal Gadot.

Regev, a member of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, had in a TV interview warned voters not to support its main rival because it would ally with Israeli Arab parties – a highly unlikely scenario.

Israeli model and actress Rotem Sela responded on Instagram, asking: “When the hell will someone in this government convey to the public that Israel is a state of all its citizens and that all people were created equal?”

Netanyahu reacted with his own Instagram post, telling Sela: “Israel is not a state of all its citizens.”

“According to the basic nationality law we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people – and only it,” he said, referring to a deeply controversial piece of legislation passed by his right-wing government last year.

Israeli "Wonder Woman" Hollywood star Gal Gadot has joined in the spat over Netanyahu's comments

Gadot, star of “Wonder Woman”, jumped to Sela’s defence.

“Love your neighbour as yourself,” Gadot wrote on Instagram late Sunday.

“This isn’t a matter of right or left. Jew or Arab. Secular or religious,” she wrote. “It’s a matter of dialogue, of dialogue for peace and security and of our tolerance of one towards the other.”