A rare gesture of empathy for victims of the Holocaust has underscored how divided Palestinians are over recognizing what Jews consider the darkest chapter in their history – and also how far apart Israelis and Palestinians remain, not only when it comes to the present conflict, but also the past.
Ziyad Bandak, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's adviser on Christian affairs, visited the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland last month, laying a wreath in memory of the more than 1 million people, most of them Jews, who were killed there during the Holocaust. Mr. Bandak, who was invited by a Polish group working for tolerance, was flayed in public statements by the Islamic militant group Hamas movement for harming the Palestinian cause and marketing a ''false Zionist alleged tragedy.''
But Bandak is being backed up by moderate Palestinian leaders in the West Bank for what they say is a ''human" act.
In the past, there was a sense among Palestinians that recognition of the Holocaust would detract from their own cause and suffering – an opinion accentuated by the feeling that their own struggles, including displacement by Israel's establishment in 1948 and the ongoing military occupation, have gone unrecognized by Israel and the international community.
With his adviser's visit to Auschwitz, Mr. Abbas has come full circle on the issue. In 1984, he published a book based on his doctoral thesis alleging that the Holocaust was exaggerated and that Zionists created ''the myth'' that 6 million Jews were murdered. But when he became Palestinian Authority prime minister in 2003, Abbas wrote that the Holocaust was an unforgivable crime against the Jewish nation and humanity. He said that he wrote the book when the Palestinians were at war with Israel and would not have made such remarks today.
''There is a competition over victimhood and suffering,'' says Hanan Ashrawi, the Ramallah-based spokeswoman for the Palestinian Liberation Organization. ''Many people feel 'Why should we recognize their suffering if they are still inflicting pain on us? We are not responsible for what happened to them. We are the victims and yet we are being blamed.' The feeling is 'Let them stop victimizing us now because their suffering in Europe is not something we're responsible for – but what's happening to us, the Israeli occupation is responsible for.'''
But Ms. Ashrawi herself says she supports Bandak's act, calling it a "human" gesture.
"You can never discount suffering and empathy with the suffering of the other, regardless of whether he is Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or atheist. The Holocaust is a horrible chapter in human history. It should never be repeated, and should never happen to anybody, and an expression of empathy and recognition of the horror is only human,'' she says.
Qais Abdul-Karim, a Palestinian legislator from the left-wing Badil party, termed the wreath laying ''a normal thing to do."
"I do not believe it will divert attention from the rights and agony of the Palestinian people. We do not deny the Holocaust or agree to any position that will try to minimize or justify the cruelty and barbarism embodied in the Holocaust," he says.
Bandak himself was traveling abroad and unavailable for comment.
In the eyes of Hamas, however, his visit was a kind of sacrilege. In remarks quoted by Reuters, spokesman Fawzi Barhoum termed the Holocaust ''an alleged tragedy'' and said the visit came ''at the expense of the true Palestinian tragedy.'' BBC reports that an editorial in Hamas's Filastin newspaper asked, ''What is the wisdom in such a simple step that supports the Jews and their crimes? Neither the Jews nor we believe that Hitler killed six million Jews.''
Salah Bardawil, another Hamas leader, stopped short of Holocaust denial, but vehemently criticized Bandak and accused him of giving cover to Israeli behavior that Bardawil compares to that of the Nazis.
''A great number of Jews and Europeans were killed by the Nazis, but this cannot be exploited for Israel's interests while Israel commits the same crimes against the Palestinian people that were committed against European peoples at that time. This visit is wrong and unacceptable to the Palestinian people," Mr. Bardawil says.
Two years ago, some Hamas figures criticized efforts by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which administers Palestinian refugee camps across the region, to include lessons about the Holocaust in the schools in runs in Gaza. The program still has not been implemented, and an UNWRA spokesman declined to comment on it. Without referring specifically to the UNRWA plans, Bardawil says he is against teaching about the Holocaust in Palestinian schools.
''He who wants to study the human crimes in general must include all the crimes, including the expulsion of Palestinians from their lands in 1948, the siege of Gaza, the war on Gaza, and the many crimes in the region. Focusing on the crimes of the Nazis of killing Jews is political, and Israel will try to benefit from this," he says.
Bandak's act comes two months after Salah Abdel-Shafi, the PLO envoy to Berlin, called the Holocaust ''the worst crime in human history'' while speaking to Israeli journalists. In an interview with the Monitor this week, Mr. Abdel-Shafi reiterated that statement.
But, in a formulation that angered Israeli officials who were contacted after the interview, he defined the Holocaust as including non-Jewish victims of the Nazis, such as the Russians who died in the German invasion of the Soviet Union.
''This is a crime against humanity at large. Not only were Jews the victims of the Holocaust but also Germans, Russians, people of different political affiliations, social democrats, communists, homosexuals. The magnitude of the crime, and its being against anything that had to do with humanity and progress, makes it into the worst crime in history,'' Abdel-Shafi says.
Yigal Palmor, the Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, says Abdel-Shafi's statement shows that despite Bandak's gesture, the Palestinians ''haven't made a step forward toward reconciliation. We haven't made any progress at all.''
''Without denying the tragedy of all the people who died, the Holocaust is a term specifically used for the systematic massacre of Jews and it is also used for the systematic massacre of Gypsies. But it is not used by anyone to describe the plight of other peoples," Mr. Palmor says.
However, Yehuda Bauer, one of the country's foremost Holocaust scholars and an academic adviser to Israeli Holocaust research center and museum Yad Vashem, termed Bandak's visit to Auschwitz ''significant.''
''The more leaders of the Palestinian national movement realize the background of the Jewish people, the better it is. In the very long run this could help create a climate for reconciliation'' Mr. Bauer says.