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Palestinian crowds watch UN statehood vote

Image

Majdi Mohammed / AP

A Palestinian girl waves a flag during a rally supporting the Palestinian U.N. bid for observer state status, in the West bank city of Ramallah, Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012.

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Jubilant Palestinians crowded around outdoor screens and television sets at home Thursday to watch the United Nations vote on granting them, at least formally, what they have long yearned for — a state of their own.

A General Assembly vote to accept "Palestine" as an observer state won't immediately change lives here, since much of what the world body is defining as the territory of that state — the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem — remains under Israeli control.

Yet many Palestinians savored the global recognition after decades of setbacks in the quest for Palestinian independence in lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War.

"For the first time, there will be a state called Palestine, with the recognition of the entire world," said Amir Hamdan, a 35-year-old dentist from the nearby refugee camp of Kalandia. "Today the world will hear our voice."

He brought his wife, Nevine, and their two toddlers to Ramallah's central square, joining more than 2,000 Palestinians watching the vote on an outdoor screen. Some clapped, danced and waved Palestinian flags.

Hundreds more watched in biblical Bethlehem, with the U.N. proceedings projected onto a towering wall that is part of Israel's separation barrier in the West Bank.

Beyond the emotions and symbolism of the day, U.N. recognition also brings real advantages.

Palestinians say it will strengthen their hand in future talks with Israel, which has lambasted the recognition bid as an attempt to bypass such negotiations.

With its vote, the U.N. is firmly rejecting Israeli attempts to portray the territories earmarked for Palestine as "disputed," or up for grabs, rather than "occupied," Abbas aides say.

The U.N. bid also could help Abbas restore some of his standing, which has been eroded by years of standstill in peace efforts. His rival, Hamas, deeply entrenched in Gaza, has seen its popularity rise after an Israeli offensive on targets linked to the Islamic militant group there earlier this month.

At least formally, the vote puts Palestine on equal footing with Israel, meaning future talks would be conducted between two states, rather than between a military occupier and a people under occupation.

Now it will no longer be up to Israel to decide whether the Palestinians can have a state, Abbas aide Nabil Shaath wrote in an opinion piece in the Israeli daily Haaretz on Thursday. "The notion that Israel should approve the Palestinians' inalienable right to self-determination is simply illogical, immoral, and totally unacceptable."

The affirmation of the pre-1967 line as the border of Palestine also poses a direct challenge to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who has refused to accept that demarcation as a basis for border talks with the Palestinians. Abbas and his aides have said that the Israeli leader's rejection of such a framework for negotiations, accepted by his predecessors, helped push them to go to the U.N.

The Palestinians could also gain access to U.N. agencies and international bodies, most significantly the International Criminal Court, which could become a springboard for going after Israel for alleged war crimes or its ongoing settlement building on war-won land.

However, in the run-up to the U.N. vote, Abbas signaled that he wants recognition to give him leverage in future talks with Israel, and not as a tool for confronting or delegitimizing Israel, as Israeli leaders have alleged.

Palestinian technical teams have studied the laws of all U.N. agencies and put together recommendations for Abbas, said a Palestinian official involved in the effort. He said Abbas told the experts there is no rush, and the next Palestinian moves would in part depend on international reaction, said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity to disclose internal deliberations.

Israel has stepped back from initial threats of harsh retaliation for seeking U.N. recognition, but government officials warned that Israel would respond to any Palestinian attempts to use the upgraded status to confront Israel in international bodies.

Most immediately, the Palestinian Authority, which relies heavily on foreign aid and is struggling with the worst cash crisis in its 18-year history, could face further funding cuts over the U.N. bid.

In Washington, a bipartisan group of senators warned the Palestinians they could lose U.S. financial support of millions of dollars a year and risk the shutdown of their Washington office if they use their enhanced U.N. status against Israel.

Israel could also suspend the monthly transfer of millions of dollars in tax rebates it collects on behalf of the Palestinians, a punitive step it has taken in the past.

In recent months, the Palestinian Authority has been struggling to cover its public sector payroll, paying salaries in installments.

Mahmoud Khamis, a civil servant from the West Bank village of Deir Jareer, said he is willing to bear the negative consequences of U.N. recognition, including further disruptions in getting his salary. "It's good to have that state recognized, for the people of the world to hear our voice and know our cause," he said.

On the domestic front, Abbas appears to have broad support for his U.N. bid. West Bank pollster Jamil Rabbah said 58 percent of 1,000 respondents were in favor, according to a survey earlier this month that had an error margin of 3.4 percentage points.

Hamas, always sensitive to public opinion, has shifted from criticizing the plan to saying they would not stand in the way.

Hamas seized the Gaza Strip from Abbas in 2007, and the two sides have been unable to heal their rift. However, on Thursday, Hamas allowed thousands to march in Gaza in support of Abbas.

In the West Bank, some Hamas activists participated in pro-Abbas marches that drew crowds of several thousand in the cities of Hebron, Nablus, Jenin and Ramallah.

In Ramallah, a senior Hamas figure, Nasser al-Shaer, addressed the crowd. "It's the right step in the right direction,"al-Shaer, a former deputy prime minister, said of the U.N. bid.

On Thursday, even veteran Palestinian negotiators disillusioned by years of failed negotiations appeared hopeful.

U.N. recognition will "provide a glimmer of light at the end of this long dark tunnel, alleviating the state of frustration prevailing among our people ...," wrote Shaath.

Associated Press writer Dalia Nammari in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed reporting.

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