JERUSALEM — The Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, accused Israel of carrying out “50 Holocausts” of Palestinians as he stood alongside the German chancellor in Berlin, then walked the comments back Wednesday in the face of international outcry from leaders and officials who denounced the remarks as antisemitic Holocaust denial.
Abbas, the 87-year-old president of the Palestinian Authority, was speaking during a joint news conference with Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany on Tuesday night. The comment that caused the uproar was a response to a reporter who asked Abbas if he was ready to apologize for the killings of 11 Israeli athletes by the Palestinian Black September group at the Munich Olympics in 1972.
Germany is planning to mark the 50th anniversary of the Munich terrorist attack in the fall.
Abbas replied that Israel had committed 50 massacres in Palestinian-populated areas from 1947 until today, adding for emphasis, “50 massacres; 50 Holocausts,” using the English term for the Nazi genocide during World War II.
Abbas has been accused of antisemitism and Holocaust distortion more than once before. Under his leadership of the Palestinians, peace talks with Israel have been stalled for years. The Israeli public has long since ceased to view him as a peace partner.
Nonetheless, he and his forces maintain a tight system of security coordination with Israel, and Israeli officials have credited Abbas with tamping down violence. But Abbas has also lost favor with much of the Palestinian public, viewed as increasingly authoritarian and out of touch. He has avoided holding presidential elections and is now in the 18th year of what was supposed to be a four-year term.
In Berlin on Tuesday night, Scholz grimaced when Abbas made his remarks, according to local media reports from the scene but did not immediately upbraid or contradict the Palestinian leader, and the news conference was brought to a swift end.
Soon after, the German chancellor strongly condemned Abbas’ words, and Wednesday morning, he tweeted in English, German and Hebrew to say he was “disgusted by the outrageous remarks made by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.”
He went on to say, “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.”
Prime Minister Yair Lapid of Israel also decried Abbas’ comments as “not only a moral disgrace, but a monstrous lie. Six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust,” he said, “including 1 1/2 million Jewish children. History will never forgive him.”
Benny Gantz, Israel’s defense minister, who hosted Abbas at his home in central Israel a few months ago, described the Palestinian leader’s words as a “despicable and false” attempt “to distort and rewrite history.”And Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. special envoy for monitoring and combating antisemitism, wrote on Twitter that Abbas’ statements were unacceptable.
“Holocaust distortion can have dangerous consequences and fuels antisemitism,” she wrote.
Outraged Israeli officials reached out early Wednesday to Palestinian counterparts with the message that Abbas should retract or clarify his remarks.
The Palestinian leader issued a clarification of his remarks later Wednesday that was carried by the official Palestinian news agency, Wafa.
It did not include an explicit apology but said that Abbas reaffirmed that the Holocaust “is the most heinous crime in modern human history” and said his remarks in Berlin were “not intended to deny the singularity of the Holocaust.”
The clarifying statement went on to say that Abbas had been referring to “the crimes and massacres committed against the Palestinian people” at the hands of Israeli forces over the past 75 years.
“These crimes have not stopped to this day,” it said.
Over the past year, the Israeli government has made some concessions to the Palestinians, such as expanding the number of permits allowing people to cross daily from the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip to work in Israel and increasing engagement with Palestinian Authority officials.
But after a wave of terrorist attacks in the spring that killed at least 19 Israelis and foreigners, Israel has escalated its military operations in the West Bank with nightly arrest raids that sometimes end in clashes and exchanges of fire.
Since the beginning of the year, Israeli forces have shot and killed 31 Palestinians, including six minors, during search-and-arrest operations in the West Bank, according to the United Nations.
Last week, Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza from the group Islamic Jihad reached a cease-fire to end three days of fighting that left dozens of Palestinians dead, including children as well as militant commanders, and that saw hundreds of rockets fired from Gaza into Israeli territory.
This was not the first time Abbas has been accused of antisemitism and Holocaust revisionism.
In his 1983 book, “The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and the Zionist Movement,” based on his doctoral thesis, Abbas argued that Zionist leaders colluded with the Nazis to worsen the conditions of Jews in Europe, with the aim of spurring them to immigrate to Palestine.
The book also questioned the figure of 6 million Jewish Holocaust victims, claiming that the number may have been less than 1 million.
Abbas later said that he was merely quoting an argument among historians over the numbers. In 2014, on the eve of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, he issued a formal statement calling the Holocaust “the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era” and expressing sympathy with victims’ families. But in 2018, speaking to a meeting of his Palestine Liberation Organization in Ramallah, he delivered a speech laced with antisemitic tropes, including the claim that the Jews of Europe brought persecution and the Holocaust upon themselves by engaging in usury and banking. Abbas later apologized.