Clarification: An earlier version of this story did not include that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had previously spoken about the crimes of the Holocaust.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a meeting with the Palestinian Central Council, a top decision-making body, at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (Majdi Mohammed/AP)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas took the unusual step Sunday of publicly denouncing the Holocaust as “the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era.”

In a strongly worded statement released to the news media, Abbas said he “expressed his sympathy with families of the victims and many other innocent people who were killed by the Nazis.”

He added: “The Holocaust is a reflection of the concept of ethnic discrimination and racism, which the Palestinians strongly reject and act against.”

The comments came as Israelis were preparing to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day, which falls on Monday. National ceremonies remembering the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazi regime and its partners during World War II take place the previous evening.

Abbas has spoken before about the crimes of the Holocaust, but this time the statement was released in English and Arabic and seemed timed for Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Such statements are rare for an Arab leader, and there was some criticism here that Abbas was looking only to garner popularity internationally and in Israeli society as the latest round of peace talks with the Palestinians was suspended by the Israeli government.

Additionally, Abbas has been accused in the past of being a Holocaust denier, mostly because of his 1983 doctoral dissertation referring to “the Zionist fantasy, the fantastic lie that six million Jews were killed.” In his thesis, he apparently claimed that only about 890,000 Jews were killed, the Jerusalem Post reported Sunday.

Abbas’s latest comments were made in response to a question posed to him by Rabbi Marc Schneier of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, a U.S.-based Jewish-Muslim interfaith group, who visited the Palestinian leader last week. During the visit, Abbas agreed to make a public statement denouncing the Holocaust.

Recognition of the full scope of the Holocaust is not always accepted in Palestinian society. A recent trip to Auschwitz, the site of a World War II Nazi concentration camp in Poland, by a group of Palestinian students led to the Palestinian professor who organized the visit being labeled a traitor.

In response to Abbas’s comments, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, said in a written statement: “Holocaust denial and revisionism are sadly prevalent in the Arab world, including among Palestinians.”

Nonetheless, it welcomed Abbas’s words, saying that they “might signal a change, and we expect it will be reflected in PA websites, curricula and discourse.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, however, that Abbas was simply “issuing statements designed to placate global public opinion.”

“Abbas needs to choose between the alliance with Hamas, a terrorist organization that calls for the destruction of Israel and denies the Holocaust, and a true peace with Israel,” he said.

Last week, a nine-month-old U.S.-led peace initiative looked set to collapse after Abbas’s moderate Fatah faction announced an agreement with the militant Islamist faction Hamas to work on creating a Palestinian unity government.

Fatah, the dominant party in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) governing the West Bank, broke ties with Hamas after the group seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. Hamas swept elections there in 2006, after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal of forces and settlers.

After the announcement Wednesday of the reconciliation deal between the two factions, Israel suspended the peace negotiations, saying that the presence of Hamas made peace impossible.

Addressing the PLO’s Central Council in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Saturday, Abbas said he was willing to continue the negotiations if Israel stuck to a previous agreement to release a group of veteran Palestinian prisoners, as well as to freeze settlement-building and present him with a map showing the borders of a future Palestinian state.