Colombian Foreign Minister Alvaro Leyva
Colombian Foreign Minister Alvaro Leyva (R) said that Israel's ambassador should apologize to President Gustavo Petro (L) AFP

Colombia on Monday said Israel's ambassador should leave the South American country before rowing back comments amid a worsening spat over President Gustavo Petro's remarks on the war with Hamas.

Foreign Minister Alvaro Leyva initially said the envoy, Gali Dagan, should "at a minimum, apologize and leave" after criticizing Petro's comparison of Israeli attacks on Gaza with the Nazi persecution of the Jews.

Leyva lashed out on social media at the "rudeness" of Israel's response to Petro, adding: "Shame."

In a later post, Levya said he had merely demanded "respect" for Colombia's president, adding "I have not said that the Israeli ambassador is expelled."

After the Hamas attacks on October 7 that killed more than 1,400 people, and Israel's announcement of a retaliatory "siege" of Gaza, Petro accused Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant of using language about Palestinians similar to what the "Nazis said of the Jews."

Petro, Colombia's first leftist president, asserted in one of several posts on X, formerly Twitter, that "democratic peoples cannot allow Nazism to reestablish itself in international politics."

Then on Sunday Israel, one of the main providers of arms to Colombia's military, said it was "halting security exports" to the South American country as the diplomatic feud escalated.

Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Lior Haiat said Colombia's ambassador, Margarita Manjarrez, had been summoned over Petro's "hostile and anti-Semitic statements."

The president's statements were received with "astonishment," said the spokesman.

He accused Petro of "expressing support for the atrocities committed by Hamas terrorists, fuelling anti-Semitism, affecting the representatives of the State of Israel and threatening the peace of the Jewish community in Colombia."

Ambassador Dagan said last week that protesters had left graffiti including swastikas on the facade of the embassy.

In response to Haiat's statement, Petro said his country does not support "genocide."

"If we have to suspend foreign relations with Israel, we suspend them," he added.

Colombia's armed forces, engaged in a decades-long conflict with leftist guerrillas, rightwing paramilitaries and drug cartels, uses Israeli-made weapons and aircraft.

The country has a history of strong diplomatic and military relations with Israel and the United States.

Petro has also engaged in an online war of words directly with the ambassador, Dagan, who had urged the president to condemn a "terrorist attack against innocent civilians."

In his response, Petro said: "terrorism is to kill innocent children, whether it be in Colombia or in Palestine."

Dagan then invited Petro to visit the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem and the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, which the president retorted he saw being "copied in Gaza."

"No democrat in the world can accept Gaza being turned into a concentration camp," Petro added.

Initially, Colombia's foreign ministry had issued a statement to "vehemently condemn the terrorism and attacks against civilians that have occurred in Israel" and expressing solidarity with the victims of Hamas.

The link to that statement was later disabled, with a new one making no mention of "terrorism."