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Tuesday 16 September 2014

Abbas condemns 'heinous' Holocaust

Published 28/04/2014 | 02:47

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Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the opening ceremony of the Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem (AP)

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has called the Holocaust "the most heinous crime" of modern history, in a rare acknowledgement of Jewish suffering shortly before Israel's annual memorial for victims of the Nazi genocide.

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Israelis frequently claim the Palestinians are not sincere about wanting peace and Mr Abbas' announcement appeared to be aimed at reaching out at a time of deep crisis in US-backed efforts.

Israel's national Holocaust memorial said Mr Abbas' comments may be a step in the right direction, but prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu brushed them aside, saying Mr Abbas' renewed attempts to reconcile with the Islamic militant movement Hamas raised doubts about the Palestinian leader's intentions.

Hamas, a movement sworn to Israel's destruction, has questioned the Holocaust and blocked the subject from being taught in schools in the Gaza Strip.

"President Abbas can't have it both ways. He can't say the Holocaust was terrible, but at the same time embrace those who deny the Holocaust and seek to perpetrate another destruction of the Jewish people," Mr Netanyahu said.

Denials or attempts to minimise the Holocaust, which saw the systematic killing of six million Jews by Nazi Germany, are widespread in the Arab world. Many Palestinians fear that if they acknowledge the Holocaust, they will diminish their own claims based on years of suffering, including their uprooting during Israel's 1948 creation and decades under Israeli occupation.

Mr Abbas himself has been accused of minimising the scope of the Holocaust in a doctoral dissertation in the 1970s, though in recent years he has edged towards acknowledging Jewish suffering.

His office said he discussed the Holocaust in a meeting with an American rabbi, Marc Schneier, who visited Mr Abbas' headquarters in Ramallah last week.

Mr Abbas told Mr Schneier 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 Palestinian news agency WAFA.

The agency quoted Mr Abbas as expressing his "sympathy with the families of the victims and many other innocent people who were killed".

Mr Abbas said the Holocaust was an expression of the idea of ethnic discrimination and racism and connected it to the Palestinian suffering of today.

"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," he said.

Israel's official Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem said it hoped Mr Abbas' comment may "signal a change" in the Arab world, where "Holocaust denial and revisionism are sadly prevalent". It said it expected Mr Abbas' stance to be "reflected in (Palestinian) websites, curricula and discourse".

Mr Abbas' statement came as the latest US attempt to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal was on the verge of collapse and he urged Israel not to walk away.

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

At the start of negotiations in late July, US secretary of state John Kerry set an end-of-April target date for a peace deal. He later lowered expectations, calling for the outlines of an agreement and, in a last attempt, for a deal on extending the talks.

But none of his objectives appear within reach and it appears unlikely talks will be salvaged by tomorrow's deadline.

The Palestinian Central Council, a top decision-making body, said last night that negotiations could be extended only if Israel agreed to a full freeze of settlement building and committed to the 1967 territorial lines - before Israel's capture of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem - as a starting point for border talks. Israel has rejected both.

In an apparent hardening of Palestinian positions, the council also said it opposed any land swaps. In previous negotiations, Mr Abbas had accepted the principle of trading some West Bank land for Israeli territory to enable Israel to keep some of the largest Jewish settlements.

The council, which convenes every few years to endorse important decisions, also said it "completely rejects" Israel's demand to be recognised by the Palestinians as a Jewish state.

Last week, Israel suspended negotiations in response to the Palestinian reconciliation deal. Israel and the West consider Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in attacks, to be a terrorist group.

"An era has ended and a new era has begun," cabinet minister Naftali Bennett, a powerful coalition partner who heads the nationalist Jewish Home party, said.

"We are not going to reach a peace agreement in the foreseeable future. I think we need to be realistic about what we can achieve."

Press Association

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