Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday walked back the widely condemned accusation he made a day earlier that Israel had committed “50 holocausts” against Palestinians, claiming he had merely been intending to highlight Israeli “crimes.”
Abbas’s remarks, made during a joint press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin, was roundly lambasted in Israel, the United States and Germany, including by Scholz himself, who was criticized for remaining silent during the press conference.
Following the uproar, Abbas issued a statement released by the Palestinian Authority’s official WAFA news agency, affirming that “the Holocaust is the most heinous crime in modern human history.”
The presidency said Abbas was “stressing that his answer was not intended to deny the singularity of the Holocaust that occurred in the last century,” and was “condemning it in the strongest terms.”
The statement added: “What is meant by the crimes that President Mahmoud Abbas spoke about are the crimes and massacres committed against the Palestinian people since the Nakba at the hands of the Israeli forces. These crimes have not stopped to this day.”
Nakba, or catastrophe, is the Palestinian term for the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the ensuing displacement of local Arabs.
The Ynet news site reported, without citing sources, that Abbas’s statement was published following “heavy pressure” from Israel, with Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s office conveying strongly worded messages that the remarks were unacceptable and demanding that it be retracted.
Other Hebrew media outlets said Prime Minister Yair Lapid had spoken with senior Abbas aide Hussein al-Sheikh and demanded an apology.
Abbas was responding to a reporter’s question about the upcoming anniversary of the Munich massacre half a century ago. Eleven Israeli athletes and a German police officer died when members of the Palestinian terror group Black September took hostages at the Olympic Village on September 5, 1972. At the time of the attack, the group was linked to Abbas’s Fatah party.
Asked whether as Palestinian leader he planned to apologize to Israel and Germany for the attack ahead of the 50th anniversary, Abbas responded instead by citing allegations of atrocities committed by Israel since 1947.
“If we want to go over the past, go ahead,” Abbas, who was speaking in Arabic, told the reporters.
“I have 50 slaughters that Israel committed in 50 Palestinian villages… 50 massacres, 50 slaughters, 50 holocausts,” he said, pronouncing the final word in English.
Mahmud #Abbas hat Israel gerade auf einer Pressekonferenz im Bundeskanzleramt wortwörtlich unterstellt, seit 1947 "50 Holocauste" begangen zu haben. Auf die gebotene Einordnung des Gesagten verzichtete @phoenix_de. pic.twitter.com/avlfyvzyUR
— Horacio Troche (@breisgau_uru) August 16, 2022
Israeli officials expressed outrage at Abbas’s comments, with Lapid calling them “a monstrous lie.” Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar said the remarks were “shameful” and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman branded Abbas a “terrorist” and a “Holocaust denier.”
Dani Dayan, chairman of Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and Museum, called Abbas’s words “despicable” and “appalling.”
Germany’s Ambassador to Israel Steffen Seibert called Abbas’s comments “wrong and unacceptable.”
“Germany will never stand for any attempt to deny the singular dimension of the crimes of the Holocaust,” he wrote on Twitter.
In the US, Deborah Lipstadt, the State Department’s antisemitism monitor, warned that Abbas’s “unacceptable” comments could have far-reaching ramifications.
“Holocaust distortion can have dangerous consequences and fuels antisemitism,” tweeted Lipstadt, who famously defeated Holocaust denier David Irving in England’s High Court of Justice in 2000 in a libel action Irving had brought against her.
Scholz was also widely criticized for failing to immediately counter Abbas’s remarks. While Scholz had earlier rejected the Palestinian leader’s description of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as “apartheid,” he did not immediately rebuke Abbas for using the term “holocaust.”
Der Spiegel, Welt, Junge Freiheit, and other media outlets ran headlines noting his silence during the press conference. BILD expressed shock that there was “not a word of dissent in the face of the worst Holocaust relativization that a head of government has ever uttered in the chancellor’s office.”
On Wednesday, Scholz slammed Abbas in a statement, saying he was “disgusted” by the remarks.
“I am disgusted by the outrageous remarks made by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas,” Scholz tweeted in German and English. “For us Germans in particular, any relativization of the singularity of the Holocaust is intolerable and unacceptable. I condemn any attempt to deny the crimes of the Holocaust.”
Germany was already embroiled in controversy surrounding a planned commemoration marking the 50th anniversary of the Munich attack, after victims’ families announced they planned to boycott the ceremony over a disagreement with Berlin regarding compensation.
Relatives of the athletes have long accused Germany of failing to secure the Olympic Village, refusing Israeli help and botching a rescue operation in which five of the attackers also died.
Agencies contributed to this report.