Ramallah: The mass killing of Jews in the Holocaust was "the most heinous crime" against humanity in the modern era, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said Sunday in his strongest remarks yet on the Nazi genocide.
The statement comes at a sensitive time for US-led peace efforts, with Israel having suspended faltering talks last week after Abbas reached an agreement with the Islamist Hamas movement to form a unity government.
In a statement in English and Arabic released just hours before Israel began marking Holocaust remembrance day, the Palestinian leader expressed sympathy with families of the six million Jews who were killed by the Nazi regime.
"What happened to the Jews in the Holocaust is the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era," Abbas said.
He also expressed his "sympathy with the families of the victims and many other innocent people who were killed by the Nazis".
His remarks, made in response to a question during talks last week with an American rabbi promoting Jewish-Muslim understanding, came as Israel and the Palestinians traded blame over the collapse of the peace talks.
"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," Abbas said.
Israel will at sundown begin marking Holocaust memorial day, holding special events and two minutes` silence to remember the victims of the Nazi genocide.Although the Palestinian leader has condemned the Holocaust in the past, his attitude has come in for heavy scrutiny since the early 1980s, when in his doctoral thesis he questioned the total number of Jews killed.
"No one can confirm or deny the figure peddled about by the rumour that six million Jews were among the victims," he wrote, suggesting the number "may number six million or be far fewer, even fewer than one million".
But he added: "The controversy over the figure cannot minimise in any way the atrocious crime committed against the Jews."
In 2011, he reportedly said that he now accepts the figure of six million Jewish victims.
Veteran Nazi hunter Ephraim Zuroff, Jerusalem director of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, said he was not aware of such a strong stand from Abbas in the past.
"To the best of my memory he hasn`t said this before," he told AFP, but added that it could be more a tactical shift than a change of heart.
"Usually, if someone who had in the past denied the Holocaust came out with such a statement, I would be very happy, but here I suspect that it may be mostly about Middle East politics," he said.
In remarks delivered at the start of Sunday`s weekly cabinet meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed Abbas over the unity deal with Hamas, whose officials have either denied the Nazi genocide outright or cast doubt on its scope.
"Hamas denies the Holocaust while attempting to carry out a second Holocaust by destroying the state of Israel," Netanyahu told reporters.
"It is with this Hamas that (Abbas) chose to make an alliance last week."In January, Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz denounced Abbas as the most anti-Semitic leader in the world following the departure from office of Iran`s firebrand president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"As someone who denied the Holocaust in his youth, he today denies the very existence of the Jewish people and their right to their own state," he said, referring to Abbas`s refusal to recognise Israel as the Jewish state, a key stumbling block in the peace talks.
In his statement, Abbas said the Holocaust was "a reflection of the concept of ethnic discrimination and racism which the Palestinians strongly reject and act against.
"The world must do its utmost to fight racism and injustice in order to bring justice and equality to oppressed people wherever they are.
"The Palestinian people, who suffer from injustice, oppression and 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.