Palestinians cheer as UN bid approved

RAMALLAH — Embracing and shooting guns and fireworks into the air, Palestinians celebrated the United Nations General Assembly's decision Thursday to upgrade them to a non-member observer state.

As members of the body cast their vote, there was silence in Yasser Arafat Square in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where large screens were set up to broadcast the session.

But the quiet was shattered by cheers and shouts of "God is greatest" when the tally was announced, the bid for the status upgrade approved by 138–9.

Fireworks were launched, and a few of those celebrating even fired guns into the air as music rang out in the city center.

"I'm happy they declared the state even though it's only a moral victory. There are a lot of sharks out there, but it feels good," 39-year-old Rashid al-Kor told AFP.

Nearby, Palestinian-American Laila Jaman was waving a handful of Palestinian flags.

"I feel so good, I cannot describe my feelings, it's as if we reached the end of a dark tunnel. With a Palestinian state, we are now united as a people and a leadership," she said breathlessly.

Ethar al-Asmar, a teacher, was pragmatic about the approval.

"Israel isn't going anywhere," she said.

But she said the moment felt historic nonetheless.

"We have been waiting for this for so long. I never thought this day would come," she said.

Earlier, the crowd listened intently as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas addressed the body, urging its members to approve the bid. There was raucous applause at the beginning and end of the speech.

Bassam Rabah was sheltering from the cold inside, watching a live feed from the UN on television.

"I don't usually stay up late," he told AFP. "But tonight I'm staying up late to see the Palestinian vote because I want to see who is with us and who is against us."

The celebrations capped a day of festivities and activities in support of the bid, beginning with lunchtime rallies across the West Bank and Gaza.

Bothaina Hamdan was at the midday rally in Ramallah, where she said the bid would prove the Palestinians were committed to a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

"It won't be easy to change anything on the ground; the occupation won't end tomorrow, we know that," she said. "But here today we are telling the world that we want peace, and we support peaceful methods to achieve our state."

Ihab Yassin, also at the rally with his children — 8-year-old Tala and 6-year-old Kamal — said the bid was a step in the right direction.

"In the long run, we will be a real state. … That is important for the generations in the future," he said. "My children will live in a Palestinian state."

In Gaza City, around a thousand people marched towards the UN headquarters in support of the bid, waving flags of various Palestinian factions, including Fatah.

Gaza's ruling Hamas movement, a bitter rival of Fatah, has in recent days expressed tepid support for the UN bid, after its leadership-in-exile announced its backing.

But while the government allowed the rally to go ahead, there were no green Hamas flags to be seen among those participating, an AFP reporter said.

In the northern West Bank city of Nablus, several thousand people took part in the day-time festivities.

"It's a good move, but it should be followed by national reconciliation or otherwise it will be nothing more than a leaf in the air," said 39-year-old Asaad Abu Sabea, a driver.

Abbas has said publicly that he hopes to restart reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas after the UN bid, and in several cities members of a range of factions — including Hamas and Islamic Jihad — spoke in favor of the UN bid.

The request was front-page news, with the Al-Hayat Al-Jadida daily splashing page one with the headline: "The state of Palestine … tonight."

But there were also voices of skepticism.

"It is similar to last year's speech," 24-year-old Abbad Khaled said after hearing Abbas' address to the General Assembly. "The Palestinian leadership doesn't have any cards to pressure Israel," he added. "Nothing will change, we will wake up tomorrow and the [Israeli] army will be there, and so will the settlements."

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