The UN General Assembly on Thursday voted overwhelmingly to recognize Palestine as a non-member state, giving a major diplomatic triumph to president Mahmud Abbas despite fierce opposition from the United States and Israel.
The 193-member assembly voted 138-9 with 41 abstentions for the resolution which enables the Palestinians to join UN agencies and sign international treaties.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird accused the United Nations of abandoning principles to give Palestinians upgraded status, and hinted Canada will retaliate.
Israel said the resolution is “one-sided” and “pushes peace backward.” Israel’s UN ambassador, Ron Prosor, called the resolution “so one-sided it doesn’t advance peace, it pushes it backward.”
With a vast majority of UN members speaking in favor of the Palestinian bid, Mr. Prosor’s speech sounded a rare note of opposition, condemning what he said was the Palestinians’ refusal to negotiate peacefully or recognize Israel.
In a fiercely worded speech opposing the UN General Assembly resolution, Mr. Prosor told the Palestinians that being made a non-member observer state “will not confer statehood.”
The diplomat said that the largely symbolic boost to Palestine’s bid for full recognition as an independent neighbor of Israel will in fact “place further obstacles and preconditions to negotiations and peace.”
“The world waits for President Abbas to speak the truth that peace can only be achieved through negotiations by recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. It waits for him to tell them that peace must also address Israel’s security needs and end the conflict once and for all,” he said.
Prosor also tore into what he said was Abbas’s weakness, with the rival Hamas group ruling over Gaza, “40 percent of the territory he claims to represent.”
The UN vote “will make a negotiated peace settlement less likely, as Palestinians continue to harden their positions,” Prosor said, “and unfortunately, it will raise expectations that cannot be met.”
Earlier Thursday, Palestinians rallied in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, waving their national flag and expressing hope for a new voice on the international stage.
Thousands gathered at celebratory demonstrations across the territories in the hours and waited for Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas to address the General Assembly on the bid for enhanced UN status.
On Thursday evening, as an autumn chill fell over Yasser Arafat Square in the West Bank city of Ramallah, thousands of people gathered to celebrate the bid and listened to Abbas deliver his speech to the General Assembly on giant screens.
Many sported the traditional black-and-white chequered keffiyeh scarf once worn by Arafat, the late Palestinian leader, whose tomb lies minutes away from the square that bears his name.
Lines of people took part in a traditional Palestinian debke dance, and waved the national flag and those of various factions, including Abbas’s Fatah movement.
Reem Maloch, 26, waiting to buy corn from a street vendor in the square, had painted the flag on her cheek.
“Of course I am happy. We are going to finally become a state. Change might be slow on the ground, but it will come,” she said.
Nearby, Bassam Rabah was sheltering from the cold inside, watching a live feed from the United Nations on television. “I don’t usually stay up late,” said Rabah, an elderly man. “But tonight I’m staying up late to see the Palestinian vote because I want to see who is with us and who is against us.”
His wife Joanne was watching with him. “I feel that tonight something will change, and it must change,” she said. “I feel that there’s a kind of hope for Palestinians to have their rights.”
Earlier, rallies were held across the West Bank to support the bid, including in Ramallah, where 30-year-old Bothaina Hamdan said she felt confident that the bid would succeed.
“This time it’s different because now we are sure that most of the states of the world support us and the United States can’t raise the veto,” she said.
“It won’t be easy to change anything on the ground; the occupation won’t end tomorrow, we know that,” she added. “But here today we are telling the world that we want peace, and we support peaceful methods to achieve our state.”
Ihab Yassin, also at the rally with his children -- eight-year-old Tala and six-year-old Kamal -- said the bid was a step in the right direction. “In the long run, we will be a real state... That is important for the generations in the future,” he said. “My children will live in a Palestinian state.”
In Gaza City, around a thousand people marched towards the UN headquarters in support of the bid, waving flags of various Palestinian factions, including Fatah. Gaza’s ruling Hamas movement, a bitter rival of Fatah, has in recent days expressed tepid support for the UN bid, after its leadership-in-exile announced its backing.
But while the government allowed the rally to go ahead, there were no green Hamas flags to be seen among those participating.
In the northern West Bank city of Nablus, several thousand people took part in the festivities. “It’s a good move, but it should be followed by national reconciliation or otherwise it will be nothing more than a leaf in the air,” said 39-year-old Asaad Abu Sabea, a driver.
Abbas has said publicly that he hopes to restart reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas after the UN bid, and in several cities members of a range of factions -- including Hamas and Islamic Jihad -- spoke in favour of the UN bid.
The request was front-page news, with the Al-Hayat Al-Jadida daily splashing page one with the headline: “The state of Palestine... tonight.”
But there were also voices of skepticism among the crowd.
“These people are here to dance and drum and sing, but what for?” said 34-year-old Mitri Dbeet as he watched the gathering from outside his shop. “It’s not that I oppose the bid, but I just know it won’t do anything. It won’t help Gaza; it’s totally symbolic. But, I suppose, why not?”