Ramallah (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) - 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.
Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust said Abbas's statement "might signal a change, and we expect it will be reflected in Palestinian Authority websites, curricula and discourse."
- 'Overture to public opinion' -
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed Abbas's comments on the Holocaust and said he was "shocked" when the Palestinian leader announced the pact with Hamas, whose officials have either denied the Nazi genocide outright or cast doubt on its scope.
"I think it's an overture to American public opinion, to world public opinion to try to placate and somehow smooth over the fact that he made a terrible step away from peace," Netanyahu said in an interview on CBS "Face the Nation."
"He made a giant leap backwards, away from peace, because he embraced Hamas that calls for the extermination of Jews worldwide," he said.
Netanyahu said his government would not negotiate with a Palestinian unity government unless Hamas declared it recognised Israel.
"Either Hamas disavows the destruction of Israel and embraces peace and denounces terror or president Abbas renounces Hamas," Netanyahu said, speaking on CNN's State of the Union.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Israel's chief negotiator with the Palestinians, told reporters it was crucial to wait and see what sort of government emerged from the unity deal.
"The reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas, was quite a disappointment... but we decided to wait and see what happens on the Palestinian side when a new government is created," she said.
Addressing PLO leaders on Saturday, Abbas said the new government, which will be made up of political independents, would recognise Israel, reject violence and abide by existing agreements.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton welcomed his comments and urged both Israel and the Palestinians not to squander the US-generated momentum for peace.
"The fact that President Abbas will remain fully in charge of the negotiation process and have a mandate to negotiate in the name of all Palestinians provides further assurance that the peace negotiations can and must proceed," she said.