United Nations

UN endorsement of Palestinian statehood sparks celebration

After initial excitement at UN General Assembly vote, some ask what international backing will mean to their fight for Israeli-occupied land

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 December, 2012, 4:53am

Euphoric Palestinians erupted in cheers, set off fireworks and chanted "God is great" after the United Nations endorsed an independent state of Palestine, giving sweeping international backing to their demands for sovereignty over lands Israel occupied in 1967.

However, the historic decision to accept Palestine as a non-member observer state won't actually grant independence to the 4.3 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.

Israel remains an occupying force in those first two territories and continues to severely restrict access to Gaza, which is ruled by the Hamas militant group. Nor does it plaster over the rift in the Palestinian leadership that has led to the emergence of dueling governments in the West Bank and Gaza.

But by gaining approval at an overwhelmingly sympathetic world forum, Palestinians hope to make it harder for Israel to resist global pressure to negotiate the borders of a future Palestine based on lines Israel held before capturing the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza in 1967.

"It's a great feeling to have a state, even if in name only," said civil servant Mohammed Srour, 28, standing in a flag-waving crowd of more than 2,000 packed into a square in the West Bank city of Ramallah late Thursday. "The most beautiful dream of any man is to have an independent state, particularly for us Palestinians who have lived under occupation for a long time."

Hundreds had watched the vote on outdoor screens and televisions, and they hugged, honked their horns and set off fireworks as the final vote was cast.

"I hope this is good," said Munir Shafie, 36, an electrical engineer who was there. "But how are we going to benefit?"

"I was afraid all day that something would happen, that Israel would find a way to deter us again. I was scared to celebrate, but now I am here and my heart is overflowing," said Miryam Foudi, 19, a student in Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority. "To other countries this is such a small thing. But to us it is a big thing. It is the first time the word 'state' will be next to our names for the whole world to see."

The vote showed how out of step the United States is with the international community when it comes to policy toward the Palestinians. Analysts have criticised the US for refusing to talk to the Islamist militants of Hamas while simultaneously undermining one-time ally Abbas, whose secular Fatah movement is now considered the weaker of the two factions. US officials had argued that Abbas' "unilateral" bid for semi-statehood was a distraction that would prevent the rejuvenation of the long-stagnant Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Apart from Israel and Canada, the only nations that heeded the Obama administration's demands for a "no" vote on Abbas' bid were the Czech Republic, Nauru, Palau, Panama, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands.

But even though the resolution did not immediately change their lives, Palestinians say the recognition isn't just symbolic. They believe it will strengthen their hand in any future talks with Israel, which has attacked the Palestinian move as an attempt to bypass such negotiations.

The international community's warm embrace was meant, in part, to help shore up the moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, whose domestic standing had been hurt by his failure to deliver a state through negotiations during his eight years at the helm.

Hamas, once shunned internationally for its campaign of violence against Israel, has seen its isolation ease in recent months, as Islamists gain power across the region. An outpouring of support from the Arab world during an Israeli offensive against targets linked to militants earlier this month in Gaza gave them another bump.

"The question is, where do we go from here and what does it mean?" Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, who was in New York for the vote, said in an interview.

Associated Press, Reuters, McClatchy Tribune, The New York Times