"There was no Massacre in Jenin" was the headline of a Haaretz editorial on 19 April, 2002, one week after Israel ended its deadly onslaught on the besieged Palestinian refugee camp in the northern West Bank. This unwarranted conclusion by the Israeli daily, other Israeli media and, ultimately, numerous western outlets, was not the outcome of a thorough investigation carried out by an independent commission of inquiry.
Quite the reverse, in fact. On 9 April, a UN convoy was prevented by Israel from reaching the Jenin camp and, on 30 April, Israel officially blocked a UN inquiry into the killings. Haaretz's seemingly conclusive statement was the outcome of two types of arbitrary evidence: the Israeli army's own claim that it did not commit a massacre in Jenin; and the fact that the number of Palestinian victims was downgraded from an estimated hundreds to scores.
In Israel itself, "many feared that Jenin would be added to the black list of massacres that have shocked the world," Haaretz reported with obvious relief. Although Israel had committed numerous crimes and massacres against Palestinians prior to April 2002, and many more since, Israelis remain comforted by the persistent illusion that they are still on the right side of history.
Those who insisted on the use of the term "Jenin massacre" were attacked and smeared, not only by Israeli media and officials, but also by western media. Accusing Israel of massacring Palestinians was equated with the ever-predictable counter-allegation of "anti-Semitism".
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This accusation was the same as that unleashed against those who accused Israel of responsibility for the Sabra and Shatila massacre, which killed thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese in September 1982. Commenting on the horrific bloodbath in the South Lebanon refugee camps, Israel's Prime Minister at the time, Menachem Begin, retorted, "Goyim kill goyim, and they come to hang the Jews."
It was Begin who ordered Israel's invasion of Lebanon which killed an estimated 17,000 Palestinians and Lebanese, and yet he still felt completely innocent. The supposedly unfounded accusations, he believed, were yet another anti-Semitic trope, not only targeting Israel, but also all Jews everywhere. Ironically, Israel's official Kahan Commission found Defence Minister General Ariel Sharon, "indirectly responsible for the massacre." Tellingly, Sharon later became the Prime Minister of Israel.
The recent media and political frenzy generated after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas used the word "holocaust" to describe Israeli crimes against Palestinians should, therefore, be placed within the above context, not in the word itself.
It is a fact that many Israelis are fully familiar with the use of the word "holocaust" in Arabic media; various pro-Israel organisations monitor Arab and Palestinian media as a matter of course. They must have already encountered many similar references to the "Syrian holocaust", the "Iraqi holocaust", the "Palestinian holocaust", and so on.
In Arabic usage, the word "holocaust" has come to represent the equivalent of a horrific massacre, or many massacres. Unlike "mathbaha" ("massacre"), holocaust carries a deeper and more heart-wrenching meaning. If anything, the use of the word accentuates further the growing understanding that Arabs feel towards the mass killing of the Jews and other vulnerable minorities by German Nazis during World War Two. It neither negates, dismisses nor attempts to replace the reference to Hitler's despicable crimes.
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In fact, a simple discourse analysis of Abbas's reference is enough to clarify his intentions. Speaking in Arabic, the Palestinian leader said, "From 1947 to the present day, Israel has committed 50 massacres in Palestinian villages and cities… 50 massacres, 50 holocausts and until today, and every day there are casualties killed by the Israeli military."
It is doubtful that Abbas was referencing 50 specific massacres because, frankly, if he was, then he is certainly wrong, as many more massacres were committed in the period he specified. The Nakba, Jenin, and many such mass killings aside, the Israeli wars on Gaza in 2008-9 and 2014 alone witnessed the combined killings of almost 3,600 Palestinians, mostly civilians. Whole families in Jabaliya, Beit Hanoun, Rafah, Khan Younis, Zeitun, Buraij and elsewhere were wiped out in these one-sided "wars" against a besieged, largely civilian, population.
Abbas was simply illustrating that Israeli crimes against Palestinians are many, and are yet to end. His remarks at a press conference in Berlin with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz were made in response to a question by a German journalist about whether Abbas was ready to apologise for the killing of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.
This question was strange because the group which carried out the attack in Munich was a fringe Palestinian group that did not represent the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the Palestinian leadership in exile at the time. Moreover, it was asked a week or so after Israel had killed 49 Palestinians, mostly civilians, including seventeen children, in its latest unprovoked military offensive against the people of Gaza.
It would have been more apt for the journalist to ask Abbas if he had received an apology from Israel for killing Palestinian civilians; or, perhaps, to ask Scholz if Berlin was ready to apologise to the Palestinian people for its blind military and political support for the occupation state. None of that happened, of course. Instead, it was Abbas who was attacked and shamed for daring to use the term "holocaust", especially in the presence of the German leader who, in turn, was also chastised by Israeli media and officials for not responding to Abbas immediately.
To stave off a political crisis with Israel, Scholz tweeted the following day about how "disgusted" he was by the "outrageous remarks" made by Abbas. He condemned the Palestinian leader for the "attempt to deny the crime of the Holocaust", and so on.
Predictably, Israeli leaders relished the moment. Instead of being held accountable for the killing of Palestinian civilians, they found themselves in a position where they supposedly had the moral high ground. Prime Minister Yair Lapid raged against Abbas's "moral disgrace" and "monstrous lie". Defence Minister Benny Gantz joined in, describing Abbas's words as "despicable". The US State Department's Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, Deborah E. Lipstadt, also jumped into the fray, accusing Abbas of "Holocaust distortion" that "fuels anti-Semitism".
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Despite the Palestinian president's swift apology, the Germans continued to escalate the issue. Indeed, police in Berlin have reportedly "opened a preliminary investigation" against Abbas for his use of the term "50 holocausts". The repercussions of these comments are ongoing, and investigating the victim exposes the depravity of Israeli propaganda.
The reality is that Palestinian officials, academics and journalists do not deny the Holocaust, but use the term to underscore their ongoing suffering at the hands of Israel. Unlike the Holocaust deniers in Europe and America, Palestinians feel an affinity between themselves as victims of Zionism and the victims of Nazi Germany. In that, there is no crime to investigate.
What really requires urgent investigation and condemnation, therefore, is Israel's continued exploitation of the Holocaust to score cheap political points against Palestinians, to silence critics and to hide the true extent of its numerous massacres, criminal military occupation and racist apartheid regime.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.