Middle East

Palestinians celebrate historic day

A Palestinian man shouts slogans during a rally in the West Bank city of Ramallah
Image caption The vote was welcomed on the streets of Ramallah

The parties began long before the voting to raise the Palestinians' status at the United Nations to non-member observer state.

By late morning in Ramallah's Yasser Arafat Square, a traditional Palestinian band had taken to the stage, followed by folk dancers, and then a procession of scouts and guides marched by, playing the drums.

"We are celebrating because the Palestinians will get observer membership of the United Nations. This will improve our political situation," said Ehab Younis.

"For sure, I'm happy. This is a Palestinian festival. The whole population is happy."

Throughout the day, the state-funded 'Palestine' television channel carried special programming focusing on the UN General Assembly vote. Most businesses and schools closed early to mark the event.

"Today is important for all the world," 15-year-old Khaloud said, holding up a sign reading: 'Palestine deserves membership'.

"We hope Palestine will win."

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionPresident Mahmoud Abbas: "The international community now stands before the last chance to save the two state solution"

Similar rallies were held across the West Bank, East Jerusalem and even in the Gaza Strip.

President Mahmoud Abbas made his speech in New York just before 2300 local time as crowds of people waving flags gathered around large screens carrying the live feed.

It began with a reference to how the Gaza conflict had increased determination to come to the UN along with regional changes brought by the Arab spring.

After two years of stalled peace talks with Israel, the upgrade in status was presented in the context of "the urgent and pressing need to end the Israeli occupation" and as "a last chance to save the two-state solution".

Mr Abbas said the endeavour was: "aimed at trying to breathe new life into the negotiations".

Israel's ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, then gave his country's response, reiterating points made earlier in Jerusalem by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Direct negotiation

The Israeli diplomat said the UN vote "will not advance the establishment of a Palestinian state, but push it further away", that Israel had to be recognised as a Jewish state and its security arrangements taken into account.

Mr Prosor said peace could only come through direct negotiations between the two sides, not through a UN resolution.

In the end, 138 out of 193 UN member states voted in favour of the resolution to upgrade the Palestinians' status. Nine voted against and 41 abstained, including the UK. Fireworks erupted in Ramallah with the news.

While Palestinians will see no changes on the ground with immediate effect, the symbolism is all-important.

There is also hope that access to UN bodies will bring new rights. A successful application for membership of the International Criminal Court could be used to accuse Israel of war crimes or make other legal claims against it.

"This is a whole new ball-game now. Israel will be dealing with a member of the international community, a state called Palestine with rights," senior PLO official Hanan Ashrawi told the BBC.

"We will have access to international organisations and agencies and we will take it from there."

There had been lobbying by Israel and its strongest ally, the US, to try to delay the vote or change the text to obtain guarantees that no international legal action would be taken against Israel.

Explaining why her country voted against the Palestinian initiative, the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, argued that it sought to circumvent peace talks.

"Today's unfortunate and counterproductive resolution places further obstacles in the path to peace," she said.

Several EU countries had moved to back Mr Abbas, a moderate leader, in an attempt to revive peace talks and oppose the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

There was also a desire to give him a diplomatic boost after the conflict between Israel and his political rivals, Hamas, who govern Gaza, appeared to sideline him.

The outcome has been effective in Ramallah. For one night, at least, there are ordinary Palestinians carrying the president's picture and proclaiming him victorious.

More on this story