Palestinians expect to win improved UN status
Palestinian Authority expected to win UN General Assembly vote recognising it as a sovereign, non-member state.PT1M30S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2ajlb 620 349 November 30, 2012
The street party was in full swing in the West Bank city of 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 United Nations to upgrade Palestine's status to "non-member observer state".
This constitutes a historical turning point and opportunity for the world to rectify a grave historical injustice.Hanan Ashrawi
There were marching bands in Bethlehem, festivals in Hebron, Jericho, Jenin and Nablus and street marches in Qalqilia and Tulkarem. And 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.
Turning point ... Palestinians in Ramallah wait to hear Mahmoud Abbas's speech to the UN. Photo: AFP
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 podum in New York. While there was widespread recognition that the upgrade in status may have little immediate impact, 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," said Mohammed Nasser, 62, a shopkeeper.
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," Mr Ali said.
The question of Palestine is the longest standing item on the UN agenda, and it is clear that without a reinvigorated peace process, Israel's 45-year long military occupation will not end with this UN resolution.
But those Fairfax Media spoke to said Palestinians had few other options open to them.
"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.
The resolution comes after Israel's deadly eight-day military campaign in Gaza, which Israel says it launched in response to constant rocket fire from Hamas militants.
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."
Motivated by stagnated peace talks and a corresponding growth in Israeli settlement construction that is viewed as illegal under international law, Mr Abbas says he will relaunch negotiations with Israel immediately after the UN vote.
This is his second attempt to upgrade Palestine's status at the UN – in September last year he led a failed bid to join the United Nations as a full member state, which stalled because of a lack of support in the Security Council.
The resolution in the UN General Assembly changes the UN status of Palestine from "observer entity" to "non-member observer state".
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," warned Israel's Finance Minister, Yuval Steinitz, 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.
Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said before the vote the only way to achieve peace was through direct negotiations between the parties.
"Israel's security must be protected, the Palestinians must recognise the Jewish State, and they must be prepared to end the conflict with Israel once and for all," Mr Netanyahu said in a statement released on YouTube.
"None of these vital interests . . . appear in the resolution that will be put forward before the General Assembly today. That is why Israel cannot accept it."
But his predecessor, the former prime minister Ehud Olmert, said there was no reason to oppose the recognition of Palestine as a non-member observer state, telling the Daily Beast website it laid the groundwork for negotiations on a two-state solution.
The United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, urged both Israelis and Palestinians to "break out of a zero-sum mentality and embrace a peaceful path forward".
"During my recent trip to the Middle East following the dangerous escalation of violence in Gaza and Israel, I saw yet again the disastrous consequences of the absence of a permanent resolution of the conflict," he said.
"What is needed now is political will and courage."
The vote took place on the 65th anniversary of the United Nations resolution 181, which partitioned British-ruled Palestine into Jewish and Arab states.