Palestinian leader makes historic denouncement of Holocaust

McClatchy foreign staffApril 28, 2014 

JERUSALEM -- Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called the Holocaust "the most heinous crime" against humanity in modern times and expressing sympathy Sunday with families of the victims.

The statement, on the eve of Israel's observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day, was the first of its kind by a Palestinian leader, and appeared to be part of an effort to reach out to Israelis after a reconciliation deal reached last week between Abbas's Fatah movement and the militant Islamist group Hamas that prompted Israel to suspend U.S.-brokered peace talks.

Israeli Prime Minister Ben

jamin Netanyahu dismissed Abbas' declarations, saying they were meant to "placate international public opinion" after the Palestinian leader made a pact with Hamas, which "denies the Holocaust while trying to create another Holocaust by destroying the state of Israel."

Abbas' statement on the Holocaust came a day after the Palestinian leader said the planned unity government under his leadership would recognize Israel and renounce violence.

Since the announcement of the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation, analysts have debated whether the deal might meet conditions set by the group of Middle East mediators known as the Quartet -- the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations -- for a Palestinian government to qualify for diplomatic recognition. Those conditions are recognition of Israel, non-violence and adherence to previous agreements.

Robert Serry, the United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said in a statement Thursday after meeting Abbas he was assured the unity accord would be carried out "on the basis of PLO commitments" to those conditions.

Hamas spokesmen have drawn a distinction between the positions of the group, which refuses to recognize Israel or renounce violence, and the negotiations with Israel, conducted by Abbas on behalf of the PLO.

"You don't need organizations to recognize Israel," Ghazi Hamad, the deputy foreign minister of the Hamas government in Gaza, told the Israeli news website Ynet last week. "It's enough that the Palestine Liberation Organization -- the representative of the Palestinian people -- recognizes the state of Israel."

On Sunday, however, Netanyahu made it clear Abbas' statements had not altered Israel's fundamental position it would not negotiate with a Palestinian government backed by a group it considers a terrorist organization.

"I will not negotiate with those who seek to exterminate my country," Netanyahu said on CNN's "State of the Union" program. He said Abbas was engaging in "damage control" and trying to "have it both ways" by lamenting the Holocaust even as he is accepting the backing of Hamas.

"President Abbas has to decide whether he wants a pact with Hamas or peace with Israel," Netanyahu said on CBS's "Face the Nation." "He cannot speak out of both sides of his mouth."

Sunday's statement by Abbas emerged from his meeting a week earlier with Marc Schneier, an American rabbi who heads a group that promotes Muslim-Jewish understanding. At the meeting, Schneier suggested that Abbas make a statement to mark the annual Holocaust commemoration.

Issued in English and Arabic by the official Palestinian news agency, WAFA, Abbas's remarks were presented as a reply to a question from Rabbi Schneier.

"President Mahmoud 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," according to the English text. "He expressed his sympathy with the families of the victims and many other innocent people who were killed by the Nazis."

Abbas asserted that "the Holocaust is a reflection of the concept of ethnic discrimination and racism which the Palestinians strongly reject and act against," the statement 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 peoples subjected to such crimes.

"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 states vision, Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security."

The Holocaust is a contentious subject among Palestinians, many of whom view it as the root cause of their displacement and exile in the 1948 war that followed the creation of Israel. Attempts to deny or minimize the Holocaust are common among Palestinians and in the Arab world.

Some Israeli Cabinet ministers have denounced Abbas as a Holocaust denier, citing his doctoral thesis, published as a book in in 1983, in which he questioned the accepted number of Jewish victims and asserted Zionist leadership collaborated with the Nazis to encourage immigration to what later would become Israel.

Abbas has since recanted, saying in interviews he would not contest the figure of 6 million Jewish victims of the Nazis in World War II.

On Saturday, Abbas sought to blunt criticism of his faction's agreement with Hamas by asserting a planned unity government under his leadership would adhere to his policies.

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