Hero … Mahmoud Abbas says he is ready to talk with Israel. Photo: AP
RAMALLAH, West Bank: The street party was in full swing in Ramallah well before the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, stood to speak at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Waving Palestinian flags and carrying placards bearing the image of Mr Abbas, thousands braved the cold to witness the historic vote in the UN to upgrade Palestine's status to ''non-member observer state''.
In a further sign of a thawing of relations between Hamas and Fatah, senior leaders from Hamas and Islamic Jihad spoke at the celebrations, after the Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, publicly expressed his support for the UN bid.
The mood in Arafat Square in the heart of Ramallah was noisy and celebratory, and the crowd erupted in cheers when Mr Abbas walked to the podium. There was widespread recognition that the upgrade in status may have little immediate impact, but many Palestinians described it is an important step towards a fully recognised state.
''It will not change much for us here [but] maybe it will stop Israel building more settlements,'' Mohammed Nasser, 62, a shopkeeper said.
Did he believe he would see a Palestinian state in his lifetime? He shook his head: ''It is impossible to say.''
A 23-year-old university student, Yasmina, who did not want her last name used, said: ''We are a country - Israel can no longer deny this. It is our land they are occupying here in the West Bank.''
Others in the crowd could not contain their happiness. Mahmoud Ali, 46, an engineer, was in the square with his family to hear Mr Abbas speak and, described the vote as a ''turning point for Palestinians''. It would help to resolve the issues of a state along 1967 borders and ''make Israeli soldiers think twice before coming into our land as they do every day and night in the West Bank. Today is a good day,'' he said.
The people Fairfax Media spoke to said Palestinians had few options open to them other than the UN route.
''We know that we cannot fight the Israelis; that did not work, and there have been no peace talks for so long, just more settlements, so there is nothing more left for us to do,'' Yasmina said with a shrug.
Palestinian officials hope that by winning recognition of Palestine based on 1967 borders it will generate more international support and place it in a better position from which to negotiate a final peace deal with Israel.
The senior Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi said: ''This constitutes a historical turning point and opportunity for the world to rectify a grave historical injustice that the Palestinians have undergone since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.''
Mr Abbas said he will relaunch negotiations with Israel immediately after the UN vote.
This was his second attempt to upgrade Palestine's status at the UN - in September last year he led a failed bid to join the UN as a full member state, which stalled because of a lack of support in the Security Council. And while it falls short of full UN membership, it will allow access to other bodies, such as the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, Israel unleashed a diplomatic campaign in an attempt to persuade key European Union countries to reject the resolution, while threatening the Palestinian leadership with harsh financial penalties should they go ahead with the bid.
''The Palestinian initiative at the UN is more dangerous than rocket attacks from Gaza,'' the Israeli Finance Minister, Yuval Steinitz, warned on Sunday, while other senior ministers spoke of abandoning the Oslo Accords and forcing Mr Abbas from power. But as the extent of the support for the Palestinian initiative became clear - with France, Italy and Spain among the powerful EU countries indicating they would vote in favour, as they subsequently did - Israel toned down its rhetoric.
Any significant response, one official said, would wait until after Israel's elections, scheduled for January 22.
The former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert broke ranks with the political mainstream, saying there was no reason to oppose the recognition of Palestine as a non-member observer state. He told the Daily Beast website it laid the groundwork for negotiations on a two-state solution.