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Poland passes Holocaust bill drawing fury of Israel, Ukraine

2 min 53Approximate reading time

Poland's senate on Thursday passed a controversial Holocaust bill aimed at defending the country's image abroad, prompting a chorus of dismay from Israel, the US and the EU and also angering Ukraine.

The legislation set fines or a maximum three-year jail term for anyone who refers to Nazi German death camps as Polish or accuses Poland of complicity in the Third Reich's crimes.

But the bill, which the senate passed by 57 votes to 23 in the early hours of Thursday morning, has sparked a furious response in Israel and Ukraine, both of whom have accused Warsaw of trying to re-write history.

Israel has warned that the legislation could serve to deny the involvement of individual Poles in Nazi Germany's extermination of Jews, with the vote prompting a sharp rebuke from the foreign ministry.

"Israel categorically opposes the Polish senate decision," said foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon.

"Israel views with utmost gravity any attempt to challenge historical truth. No law will change the facts."

The legislation was approved by the lower house of parliament on Friday, prompting a flurry of Israeli efforts to have the bill dropped.

"We have no tolerance for the distortion of the truth and rewriting history or denying the Holocaust," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday.

- 'Despicable slander' -

The move to criminalise anyone using the term "Polish death camps" also provoked a sharp rebuke from EU president and former Polish premier Donald Tusk.

Referring to a section of the bill which says that anyone who spreads the false phrase about "Polish camps" harms the good name and interests of Poland, Tusk wrote on Twitter: "The authors of the bill have promoted this despicable slander across the globe, more effectively than anyone ever has before."

Polish President Andrzej Duda now has 21 days to sign the bill into law.

The bill relates to the extermination of Jews by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War II.

Its main aim is to prevent people from ascribing "responsibility or co-responsibility to the Polish nation or state for crimes committed by the German Third Reich -- or other crimes against humanity and war crimes."

In Poland, both the senate and the lower house of parliament are controlled by the ruling rightwing Law and Justice party, which has sought to revive patriotism through a policy of extolling Polish heroism in the face of Nazi Germany, the communist regime, Ukrainian nationalists or the Soviet Red Army.

The bill has also angered Kiev, which has taken issue with a separate passage imposing a criminal sentence on anyone who denies crimes were committed by Ukrainian nationalists against Poles between 1925-1950.

"I am deeply concerned by the decision of the Polish parliament," Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko wrote on Facebook, describing the premises on which the law was based as "totally biased and completely unacceptable".

Some historians say Ukraine's UPA nationalists committed atrocities during World War II, notably against Poles in Ukraine.

In Poland, however, UPA fighters were seen as death squads responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Poles from what is now western Ukraine.

In 2015, Kiev's parliament gave unprecedented recognition to those who served in the UPA, recognising them as "Ukrainian independence fighters". A year later, Polish MPs recognised as "genocide" the wartime massacre of some 100,000 Poles by Ukrainian nationalists.

- 'Holocaust denial' -

In Israel, Transport Minister Israel Katz called for the Polish ambassador to be summoned over the law and opposition MP Itzik Shmuli said Poland had become "the first nation to legislate Holocaust denial".

Israeli lawmakers on Wednesday penned a bill of their own to amend Israel's law regarding Holocaust denial so that diminishing or denying the role of those who aided the Nazis in crimes against Jews would be punishable with jail.

Before the vote on the Polish bill, Washington also expressed concern it "could undermine free speech and academic discourse" and about the effect it could have on Poland's ties with the United States and Israel.

During the war, Poland was attacked and occupied by Nazi Germany and six million of its citizens were killed, half of them Jews.

More than 6,700 Poles -- outnumbering any other nationality -- have been honoured by Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial as "Righteous Among the Nations", a title given to non-Jews who stood up to the Nazis.

Yad Vashem has called the legislation "unfortunate", warning it was "liable to blur the historical truths regarding the assistance the Germans received from the Polish population during the Holocaust".

But it said that referring to the extermination camps the Nazis built in Poland as Polish is "a historical misrepresentation".

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