RAMALLAH, West Bank: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas returned to the West Bank yesterday after winning upgraded UN status for the Palestinians, telling cheering crowds: “Yes, now we have a state.”
“Palestine has accomplished a historic achievement at the UN,” Abbas added, three days after the United Nations General Assembly granted the Palestinians non-member state observer status in a 138-9 vote. “The world said in a loud voice... yes to the state of Palestine, yes to Palestine’s freedom, yes to Palestine’s independence, no to aggression, no to settlements, no to occupation,” Abbas told the ecstatic crowd.
Abbas pledged that after the victory at the United Nations, his “first and most important” task would be working to achieve Palestinian unity and reviving efforts to reconcile rival factions Fatah and Hamas.
“We will study over the course of the coming days the steps necessary to achieve reconciliation,” he said, as the crowd chanted “The people want the end of the division.”
The return was a moment of triumph for Abbas, who last year tried and failed to win the Palestinians full state membership at the United Nations. The bid stalled in the Security Council, where the veto-wielding United States has vehemently opposed it.
The United States, Israel and a handful of other countries also opposed the Palestinian bid to upgrade their status to that of a non-member observer state, but with no vetos available in the General Assembly, the measure easily passed.
The move gives the Palestinians access to a range of international institutions, including potentially the International Criminal Court, and raises their international profile after years of stalled peace talks with Israel. Abbas was received with a full honor guard, descending from his car to walk along a red carpet at the Ramallah presidential headquarters known as the Muqataa, where he shook hands with waiting dignitaries. He laid a wreath and said a brief prayer at the grave of the iconic late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who is buried within the presidential complex, later dedicating the UN victory to the former president’s memory. Abbas called the approval a milestone in Palestinian history, saying it was the achievement of Palestinians everywhere.
“Our people everywhere, raise your heads up high because you are Palestinians,” he said. “You are stronger than the occupation... because you are Palestinians.
“You are stronger than the settlements because you are Palestinians.”
While the Palestinians have expressed satisfaction and joy over the success of the bid, it has not been without repercussions.
Israel’s Haaretz newspaper said a total of 460 million shekels ($120 million, 92.7 million euros) would be withheld from the Palestinians.
Palestinian officials had no immediate comment. The move comes after the Palestinians secured non-member state observer status at the UN General Assembly last week, winning approval in a 138-9 vote over fierce opposition from Israel and the United States.
Israel on Friday already announced new settlement construction in the wake of the vote, in what was widely considered a punitive response to the bid.
“The response to the attack on Zionism and the State of Israel must reinforce the settlement plan in all areas the government decides,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday, quoting late premier Yitzhak Rabin’s 1975 similar decision which came “in the wake of the UN decision that equated Zionism with racism.”
“Today we are building and we will continue to build in Jerusalem and in all areas that are on the map of the strategic interests of the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said at the cabinet meeting.
Ahead of the UN vote, Israel’s government had warned the Palestinians and the international community that it would react harshly to upgraded status for the Palestinians, accusing them of leapfrogging negotiations and disregarding peace accords.
The Palestinians say the upgraded status does not contradict any effort for new talks, pointing out that negotiations have been on hold since late September 2010.
They ground to a halt shortly after they began over the issue of settlement construction. The Palestinians want a freeze on all settlement activity before talks resume, but Israel wants negotiations without any preconditions.
Every month, Israel transfers tens of millions of dollars in customs duties which are levied on goods destined for Palestinian markets that transit through Israeli ports, and which constitute a large percentage of the Palestinian budget.
The transfers are governed by the 1994 Paris Protocols with the Palestinians.
But Israel often freezes the transfer of the funds as a punitive measure in response to diplomatic or political developments viewed as harmful.
The freezes have contributed to an already dire financial position for the Palestinian Authority, which has frequently been unable to make payroll for its employees in the last year.