Palestinians take to streets to cheer on UN bid

Palestinians take to streets to cheer on UN bid Palestinians rally in Ramallah (AP Photo)

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Thousands of jubilant, flag-waving Palestinians, watching on outdoor screens across the West Bank, cheered their president on Friday as he submitted his historic request for recognition of a state of Palestine to the United Nations.

Mahmoud Abbas’ defiant stance, pushing for U.N. recognition over strong objections from the U.S. and Israel, has struck a chord with Palestinians increasingly disillusioned after nearly two decades of failed efforts to bring them independence. At the U.N. General Assembly, Abbas’ announcement was met by a standing ovation, a stirring sight for Palestinians who felt their plight had largely been forgotten.

In the city of Nablus, thousands packed into the main square, decorated with large Palestinian flags and posters of Abbas. Fathers came with children on their shoulders. Young men climbed onto surrounding rooftops. Elderly women were assisted by younger relatives.

The crowd cheered throughout the speech, roaring ecstatically when Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, announced from the podium of the General Assembly that he had submitted the request for full U.N. membership.

“We are here celebrating because Abu Mazen is making us a state. We want to have our own state, like any other country. All countries must support us,” said Reem al-Masri, a 30-year-old schoolteacher, who lost a brother and two cousins in fighting with Israel during the second Palestinian uprising against occupation a decade ago.

“This is our land. We’re going to be strong in it until it’s liberated. When you have a state all your dreams come true,” she said.

In Ramallah, the seat of Abbas’ government, a crowd of several thousand cheered, whistled and chanted “God is great” during Abbas’ speech. Fuad Ashilla, 50, said it’s important Abbas not succumb to American pressure to withdraw his request.

Some Palestinians said they were inspired by the wave of protests across the Arab world calling for political freedom.

“As you saw in the Arab world, when the people go to the street they say what people want,” said Ghassan Jabr, 47, at Yasser Arafat Square in Ramallah. “If this is what people want, then this must happen.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the General Assembly shortly after Abbas, saying he was ready to make painful compromises for peace, but that the Palestinians must take Israeli security concerns seriously. In the West Bank city of Hebron, several spectators threw shoes at an outdoor screen during Netanyahu’s speech in a show of contempt.

The joy over Abbas’ move was marred by violence just hours earlier. Near the West Bank village of Qusra, Israeli soldiers shot dead a Palestinian man during rock-throwing clashes between the villagers and Israeli settlers, according to witnesses and military accounts.

Earlier Friday, Palestinians supporting the recognition bid clashed with Israeli soldiers in three West Bank locations.

At Qalandiya, a major Israeli checkpoint between the West Bank and Jerusalem, Israeli troops fired tear gas to disperse Palestinian stone-throwers. The confrontations lasted several hours, and by late afternoon, medics said some 70 Palestinians had been injured by rubber-coated steel pellets or suffered tear gas inhalation.

In the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, demonstrators carried a chair painted in the U.N.’s signature blue to symbolize the quest for recognition. They burned Israeli flags and posters of President Barack Obama, and threw stones before being enveloped by tear gas fired by Israeli troops. Clashes were also reported in the nearby village of Bilin.

Abbas has called for peaceful marches in support of his bid to win U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War. Friday night’s rallies indicated that his people are heeding that call, though both Israeli and Palestinian officials have expressed concerns that demonstrations could spill over into violence.

Late Friday, the Israeli military said it had gone on high alert for what it called an imminent Hamas attack along its border with Egypt. Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, an army spokeswoman, said there was “concrete intelligence” that Hamas and maybe other militant groups were trying to infiltrate the border — in a potential attempt to torpedo the Palestinian statehood bid at the U.N., which Hamas opposes.

Last month, militants infiltrated Israel from Egypt, killing eight Israelis. Six Egyptian soldiers were killed as Israel pursued the attackers.

An Egyptian official said he received reports from the Israeli side that there were plans by militants groups to plant a car bomb on the border. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said authorities in Egypt briefly closed the border crossing, but it has since reopened.

Full U.N. membership can only be bestowed by the U.N. Security Council, where Abbas’ request will almost certainly be derailed — either by a failure to win the needed nine votes in the 15-member body or by a U.S. veto if the necessary majority is obtained.

The Palestinians say they are seeking full U.N. membership to underscore their right to statehood, but have left open the option of a lesser alternative — a nonmember observer state. Such a status would be granted by the General Assembly, where the Palestinians enjoy broad support.

Siding with Israel, Obama has said a Palestinian state can only be established as a result of negotiations, and that there is no short-cut to independence.

Abbas has said negotiations remain his preference, but that he will not resume talks — frozen since 2008 — unless Israel agrees to the pre-1967 frontier as a baseline and freezes all settlement construction on occupied land. The Palestinian demands are widely backed by the international community, including the U.S., but Obama has been unable to persuade Israel’s hardline prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to agree to them.

Netanyahu says he wants to negotiate without preconditions and accuses the Palestinians of missing an opportunity for peace. Abbas says settlement expansion pre-empts the outcome of negotiations by creating facts on the ground.

Abbas enjoys broad popular support at home for his recognition bid, but his main political rival, the Islamic militant Hamas, opposes it. Hamas has ruled the Gaza Strip since seizing it from Abbas in a violent takeover in 2007.

Gaza’s Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, said Friday that Abbas was giving up Palestinian rights by seeking recognition for a state in the pre-1967 borders.

On Friday evening, several Hamas officials watched the speech at an office in Gaza City, taking notes and exchanging text messages with leaders of the movement in Syria and Lebanon.

Hamas’ founding charter calls for the destruction of Israel and a state in all of the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River.

“The Palestinian people do not beg the world for a state, and the state can’t be created through decisions and initiatives,” Haniyeh said. “States liberate their land first and then the political body can be established.”