RAMALLAH/GAZA: Flag-waving Palestinians thronged the squares of the West Bank and Gaza Strip before President Mahmoud Abbas’s move to claim observer statehood at the United Nations in a vote that is assured of a majority.
Abbas’ Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, gave schoolchildren and civil servants the afternoon off to attend celebrations in Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem and Hebron.
In a rare show of unity, Abbas’ Islamist rivals Hamas, who have ruled Gaza since a brief civil war in 2007, let supporters of the president’s Fatah movement hold a similar demonstration there. Hamas itself is sceptical of Abbas’ diplomatic approach and this month it fought another brief rocket war with Israel.
The crowds were cheered by last-minute declarations of support from west European countries, adding more weight to a certain victory in the 193-member UN General Assembly, which will upgrade them to an “observer state”, like the Vatican.
Palestinian flags draped buildings in the heart of the interim West Bank capital Ramallah. Patriotic songs blared from loudspeakers and school-aged scouts marched and banged drums.
“This is a historic day for Palestinians, and while the children are too young to understand what an ‘observer state’ means, they will remember this day later, and say they were here,” said Haza Abu Baker, who words at the finance ministry.
Nasser Abdel Hadi, owner of a famous local restaurant, baked a massive pizza in the red, white, green and black colours of the Palestinian flag - using local olives, cheese, tomatoes, poppy seeds and spinach.
“What Israel has done over the course of the past 60 years has been criminal,” he said. “They took our land, our children and our future. The battle is now at the United Nations.”
Israel, the United States and a handful of other UN members plan to vote against what they see as a largely symbolic and counter-productive move by the Palestinians, insisting true statehood can only be achieved through a comprehensive Middle East peace treaty ending 65 years of intractable conflict.
The vote takes place on a date burned into collective memory - when the Assembly voted on November 29, 1947 for Resolution 181, to partition British-ruled Palestine into two states, one Arab, one Jewish. Arab rulers rejected it and, after bitter fighting, Israel alone was recognised as a state six months later.
A bid by Abbas last year for full statehood was defeated in the UN Security Council, where Washington has a veto.
He has pledged a prompt return to negotiations with Israel when he wins the upgrade from “entity” to “observer state”. Talks have been suspended for two years.
Palestinians seek a state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, land captured by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
“We are looking to the international community to implement justice that has been absent for many years, causing our people much agony,” top Fatah official Zakaria Al Agha told thousands in Gaza. “We demand that they pressure Israel to recognise the rights of our people,” he said. Hamas leaders, who do not recognise the state of Israel, dropped their initial opposition to Abbas’ statehood move and gave it their backing but have not softened their opposition to the two-state solution Abbas advocates.
“We do not believe in the two-state solution,” Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal said. But his movement welcomed any political and diplomatic gain Abbas may achieve. Hamas and other militants this month fought an eight-day conflict with Israel, which launched an offensive to halt rocket fire from Gaza into its southern towns. The brief war killed 175 Palestinians and 6 Israelis.
Analysts say the recent rise of European support for the Palestinians’ UN campaign may stem from governments’ desire to empower perceived moderates like Abbas and his Fatah group over more extreme, armed factions.
The European Union, biggest aid donor to the Palestinians, said yesterday a Palestinian state should be fully recognised by the United Nations but called on Israel and the Palestinians not to undermine each other’s confidence in any peace talks.
The EU statement underscored deep divisions in 27-member bloc over its approach to solving the conflict. Roughly half are expected to vote for Palestinian statehood.
The bloc’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton said in a statement: “The EU has repeatedly expressed its support and wish for Palestine to become a full member of the United Nations as part of a solution to the conflict.” She urged both sides quickly to resume negotiations, stalled now for some two years, but warned them not to damage trust.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday that the UN vote could only hinder real Palestinian statehood. But despite its fierce opposition to the Palestinian bid to become a “non-member state” at the United Nations, Israel seems unwilling to show itself diplomatically isolated and has toned down threats of retaliation in the face of wide international support for the initiative, notably among its European allies.
“The decision at the United Nations will change nothing on the ground,” Netanyahu said during a visit to a museum in Jerusalem. “It will not advance the establishment of a Palestinian state. It will delay it further.”
“No matter how many hands are raised against us,” Netanyahu said of the vote in the Assembly chamber, “there is no power on earth that will cause me to compromise on Israel’s security.”
Israel says a Palestinian state must be the product of direct negotiations and a peace deal that imposes security measures and charts borders that pose no danger to Israelis. Netanyahu made no mention of any punitive Israeli measures in his remarks, in contrast to Israeli comments just weeks ago. Reuters