The Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, has termed the Holocaust the “most heinous crime” in the modern era and voiced sympathy for families of its victims. It marks a definitive break with tendencies in the Arab world to play down or deny the Nazi murder of six million Jews during the Second World War.
Mr Abbas’s office published the remarks, which he made last week to a visiting US rabbi, Marc Schneier, who leads an organisation promoting Jewish-Muslim ties, to coincide with the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel.
“President Abbas said that what happened to the Jews in the Holocaust is the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era,” his office said. “He expressed sympathy with the families of the victims and many other innocent people who were killed by the Nazis.”
The overture to Israeli public opinion also coincided with a severe crisis in Israeli-Palestinian relations, coming just three days after Israel’s hardline government suspended troubled peace talks in response to Mr Abbas’s forging a national reconciliation agreement with Hamas, the militant Islamic group whose charter advocates the destruction of Israel.
Mr Abbas, 79, said: “The Palestinian people, who suffer from injustice, oppression and are denied freedom and peace are the first to demand to lift the injustice and racism that befell other people subjected to such crimes.”
His office added: “On the incredibly sad commemoration of Holocaust Day, we call on the Israeli government to seize the current opportunity to conclude a just and comprehensive peace in the region, based on the two-state vision – Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security.”
The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was quick to dismiss the statement, saying: “Hamas denies the Holocaust amid its efforts to make a new Holocaust through destroying Israel. This is what Abu Mazen [Mr Abbas] chose to make an alliance with last week. Instead of making declarations to placate international public opinion he must choose [between Hamas and peace with Israel].”
On Saturday, Mr Abbas declared that the new Palestinian government to ensue from the reconciliation pact would recognise Israel and condemn violence. He called on Israel to accept his conditions for extending peace talks, namely a freeze on illegal settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and the release of a group of prisoners Israel was obliged to free on 29 March but did not. Israeli officials termed Mr Abbas’s conditions “verification of the killing” of the peace talks.
Uri Chanoch, 86, a member of the board of several leading Holocaust survivors’ organisations in Israel, was guardedly welcoming of the Palestinian leader’s remarks about the Holocaust. “It is good that he said it. How much it will influence politics I don’t know. Politics has its own calculations. In the atmosphere following his wedding with Hamas, it seems the most correct thing he did. You can say it is positive. Maybe this will have a few small percentages of influence but not more.”
Traditionally, many Palestinians have felt that recognition of the Holocaust would detract from their own cause and suffering, including displacement by Israel in 1948 and military occupation.
For Mr Abbas, making the statement meant coming full circle since 1984, when he published a book based on his doctoral thesis, alleging that the Holocaust was exaggerated and that Zionists created “the myth” that six million Jews were murdered.
When he became Prime Minister in 2003, he wrote that the Holocaust was an unforgivable crime against the Jewish nation and humanity. In 2012, one of his advisers, Ziyad Bandak, visited the former concentration camp at Auschwitz in Poland and laid a wreath, prompting condemnation by Hamas leaders.
On Sunday, Hassan Youssef, a Hamas leader in the West Bank, declined to comment on Mr Abbas’s remarks.